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Herr Welzer - what's next?

Herr Welzer - what's next?
Foto: © Jens Steingässer

Whether it’s Artificial Intelligence, car­free cities or transformation design: This man writes one hit after another: Harald Welzer. No, we’re not talking about the cook (Tim Mälzer), but rather the sociologist, social psychologist, futurologist, visionary – and publisher of the print magazine FUTURZWEI – which fits in perfectly with our issue “The Big Good Future #2”. We spoke with the professor, a native of Bissendorf (near Hanover) who has set up shop in Berlin, about the value of creative work in the wake of digital transformation and where Artificial Intelligence ceases and artificial ignorance begins.




CCB Magazine: Herr Welzer, you write one book after another, you sit on talk show panels all the time, you debate about the future of work and digitalisation – but you don’t have a smartphone. Do your best thoughts come to you offline?

Harald Welzer: I can’t really say, mainly because I’m not spending a whole lot of time online. Then again, I probably have a lot more time on my hands than others do who are always tapping about on the phone. I needn’t write 14 messages just to set up a phone call. I just call.

CCB Magazine:Your latest book “Es könnte anders sein” (“It could be differ­ent”) is a social sketch of the future of work, mobility, digitali­sation, urban life and new forms of economy. When you your­self consider digitalisation, what gives you hope for the future?

Harald Welzer: First of all, that all the shit work will be done away with. And that’s not meant to sound disrespectful; by that I mean the physically demanding work that destroys people and those activities that require less effort. The extreme­ly repetitive forms of work, i.e. the permanent repetition of certain hand movements and mental activities such as sorting by numbers, are also part of this; machines are already doing that now, and they will be doing so in the future. In turn, other forms of work in which the human being takes centre stage can be upgraded. For example, work in the healthcare sector. And in the overall picture there could perhaps be more latitude for the work that people really enjoy doing.

CCB Magazine:But isn’t this a utopian idea, believing that there could be a society that only produces useful and meaningful work?

Harald Welzer: Of course this is a utopian concept, but that’s how reali­ties begin. Who would we be if we didn’t think about al­ternatives? 

‘Creative’ work may also be automated in the future. Even now, algorithms can write reports, but the ideas, the perceptions of society, work and life, they still require people. And creative work could actually be the work we do in the future because it’s meaningful 

CCB Magazine:How will digitalisation change the value of creative work? The concept of creativity is centuries old. Until the Enlight­enment, the dominant assumption was that ‘creative types’ were supposedly insane, geniuses or eccentrics. It was only later that ‘creative’ abilities were associated with achieve­ments, and in the last two decades creativity has also even been regarded as an economic motor – something many art­ists have resisted. Let’s assume that there will be less work in the future due to the digital upheaval; will creative work per­haps acquire a completely different significance in society in general? Meaning, when it’s no longer about whether it’s economic activity at all or not?

Harald Welzer: Perhaps. At first glance, however, this concept of crea­tivity bothers me. An artist friend of mine, Dieter Frölich, always says that creativity is something for hairdressers. And I’d go along with that! Creativity is first and foremost merely the rearrangement of what already exists, and what’s now being cast as creativity at some workshop or other often has next to nothing to do with creativity. After all, we have the following situation: Since the 1980s there has been an expansion of creative occupational profes­sions because the economy requires creativity or relies on creativity as a driving force. However, the concept of creativity has become so dodgy today that you really have to ask yourself what it will entail in the future – especially as a result of the digital revolution.

CCB Magazine:What do you think? 

Harald Welzer: The question is, what will become of the cultural sector through the restructuring of the labour sector? In the end, it’s a question of distribution: How can a society be finan­cially viable, but also function as a community of solidar­ity, when whole branches break away as a result of auto­mation? Even ‘creative’ work will be able to be automated in the future; even now, algorithms can write reports, but the ideas, the perceptions of society, work and life, they still require people. And creative work could actually be the work we do in the future because it’s meaningful.

Has a few ideas about how things are going to unfold in the future: Harald Welzer. © Deutschlandradio - Bettina Straub

CCB Magazine:Hannah Arendt used the term ‘manufacturing’ to differen­tiate it from ‘work’, yet she never saw anything political in it. Mightn’t that be the intrinsic value of creative work in the fu­ture? The fact that it’s something like Ulrich Beck’s idea of civic work? Work that benefits society? One tendency in re­cent years has been for creative professionals to increasing­ly emphasise the importance of environmentally friendly or socially just criteria.

Harald Welzer: Yes, I see that potential. And ultimately this will give us the opportunity to think about work in a completely new way. Protestantism has influenced the value of the work for almost 200 years; today, work is regarded as a value that is synonymous with pay and performance. It’s sort of like those old Donald Duck comics. In a translation by Dr. Erika Fuchs there was a poem by Tick, Trick and Track: “Wer Arbeit kennt und sich nicht drückt, der ist verrückt.” In antiquity, someone that didn’t have to work was con­sidered to “free”; labour stood for toil and plague. We have freed ourselves of this thinking over the centuries, thank God. At the same time, work has become a fetish and we’re happy to get away from it. We could actually start reflecting now on which social productive forces will be meaningful and beneficial in the future. Especially using digitalisation. 

CCB Magazine:Such as? 

Harald Welzer: If a society is to become more environmentally friendly and participatory, one has to ask: how? This is where digi­talisation reveals endless possibilities. In this way, supply chain transparency can be increased by disclosing who was involved in what production and under what condi­tions. We could use digitalisation to perfectly  organise public transport and get rid of cars. Digitalisation is just a technology for now. It can create democracy, but under certain market conditions it can also be hostile to civili­sation, and this is what’s currently emerging. A few tech companies dominate the market and governments are chasing after every AI. What we ultimately need now is a real debate on digitalisation instead of frittering away hours on our smartphones. 

If a society is to become more environ­mentally friendly and participatory, one has to ask: how? This is where digitalisation offers us endless possibilities. Initially, it’s just a technology. And what we need in the future will not be artificial, but moral intelligence

CCB Magazine:What kind of debate? It seems like people are talking all the time. 

Harald Welzer: Yes, but not about anything very important. The point is: What do we want anyway? What kind of society do we want where a good life is possible? In dealing with dig­italisation, people are currently doing just the opposite: For some mysterious reason, it’s assumed that we need all these digital innovations. But we don’t ask why. And the reality is: To this day we do not have, and in the dis­tant future, we still will not have an autonomously driving car that can handle snow, in which case the vehicle won’t move an inch. All of these robots to date are little more than sophisticated toasters. In fact, I would rather prefer the intelligence of some people who actually bear some political responsibility than outsourcing some intelli­gence to certain places or environments. Environmental intelligence. Personally, I find it quite pleasant when the environment I find myself in is a bit daft, and it doesn’t have to be intelligent. I want to be able to manipulate this environment – intelligently – and I definitely don’t manip­ulate me. And what we need in the future will not be arti­ficial, but moral intelligence. An enlightened relationship to technology. 

© Deutschlandradio - Bettina Straub

CCB Magazine:You recently had a discussion with economist Tilman Santa­rius, the author of the book “Smarte Grüne Welt. Digitalisie­rung zwischen Überwachung, Konsum und Nachhaltigkeit” (“Smart Green World: Digitalisation between monitoring, consumption and sustainability”). At the Einstein Center Digi­tal Future in Berlin. In his analyses, Santarius has shown that digitalisation, contrary to the belief that it saves resources, is a real climate killer: The computing power per kilowatt­hour has doubled every 1.5 years over time. Couldn’t cultural and creative markets be a kind of new avant­garde in the future, as they place class before mass and increasingly focus on conserving resources? 

Harald Welzer: That would be desirable, sure. And that’s what I wrote about with Bernd Sommer in my book “Transformation­design”: New design with responsibility. Reductive De­sign. Because digital innovations consume immense amounts of resources and are simply unsustainable. By the way, AI or not: We humans still have the future in our own hands, politics too. We could even set up a pub­lic­law network for all, and we could develop new forms of housing involving creative professionals and citizens. We could renew entire cities in an environmentally friend­ly way; so much is possible here. You just have to do it.

The interview was published in the new print magazine „The Big Good Future #2“ 


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