Schirrmacher's Heritage

Schirrmacher's Heritage

Andrian Kreye [2.14.18]

A book of essays claims the authority to interpret, carries the militant title "Reclaim Autonomy”, and demands self-empowerment.

The questions of how science and technology are transforming life and society are among the greatest intellectual challenges that surprisingly few of today's intellectuals take on. One of the first to do so was FAZ editor Frank Schirrmacher, who died in 2014. So it was not only an gesture of respect, but also an attempt at a programmatic continuation, when the publisher of the weekly Freitag, Jakob Augstein, dedicated a symposium on digital debate to Frank Schirrmacher.

The result is a volume with the rebellious title of "Reclaim Autonomy—Self-Empowerment in the Digital World Order". The book has far more validity than the mere documentation of a symposium. The project is honorable precisely because it is in Frank Schirrmacher’s journalistic home, the Feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, that his spirit and his legacy are very conspicuously diminished.

Here, as the selection of authors shows, the volume is seamlessly connected to Schirrmacher. It may seem strange at the moment that failed social democratic candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz wrote the foreword. But that reminds us that Schirrmacher had found an intellectual sparring partner in politics in Schulz. Apart from that, critics such as Yvonne Hofstetter and Saskia Sassen, whose arguments are technically well-versed, Constanze Kurz and Evgeny Morozov, who are politically outspoken, economist Shoshana Zuboff and novelist Daniel Suarez, are included.

Even more than a year after the symposium, the volume reflects the current state of the debate. This is Frank Schirrmacher quite, if only in the approach, fair. He had the gift of starting debates that were the right ones to have but also ahead of their time. Any claim to claim Schirrmacher's inheritance is in vain though, because the debates have changed with the times. The days of digital pioneering are over, from which one could read either a utopian or dystopian future (Schirrmacher did both). Digital conferences are currently dealing with a brutal present.

If you want to get an idea of ​​where the future debates are headed, we recommend the internet forum, directed by the science impresario John Brockman, who had always been an important source for Schirrmacher. For the last twenty years, Brockman has posed an annual question to his network of visionaries, artists, and Nobel laureates. This year, he ended the project by asking everyone to ask one last question.

When the biologist David Haig asks: "What will be the use of 99% humanity for the 1%?", he still poses a question aimed at current digital changes of in society. But if the anthropologist Dorsa Amir asks “Are the simplest bits of information in the brain stored at the level of the neuron?” or the roboticist Rodney Brooks asks, “Can consciousness exist in an entity without a self-contained physical body?”, we realize that science is thinking a lot more about the subject of artificial intelligence. That's why the result is one of the most exciting reading streams ever. Which brings us full circle back to Schirrmacher.

[Translated from the original German language publication in Sueddeutsche Zeitung.]