MAN OF THE FUTURE: Frank Schirrmacher has died at the age of 54 years

[ Mon. Jun. 16. 2014 ]

An Obituary by Gustav Seibt, Franziska Augstein and Andrian Kreye 

. . .  Not a traditional man of culture 

Schirrmacher had a large double talent: he could create new topics and get them out early. He knew—months before others knew it—what would be the language in the Federal Republic. And he was great in terms of the agreement with important people. He wrote his articles rather quickly. In addition, however, he wanted to get involved, to have his fingers everywhere.  He succeeded in both.

Frank Schirrmacher was not just a traditional man of culture, although he had followed in the footsteps of two pillars of post-war cultural life in Germany, namely historian Joachim C. Fest and literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. He was not only a fierce social critic of the conservative mold, He was not only a great journalist, having launched one of the last newspaper projects to be both successfull and profitable, which is FAZ's weeked edition FAS. He was one of the first "digerati", i.e. one of those 21st century intellectuals on the cusp between the humanities and natural sciences who detect a technology-driven future that opens up new worlds. But because he came from the European tradition of critical thinking, he was largely immune to the seductive euphoria that was blowing from the American shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Sure, there seemed to be no limits to be the enthusiasm with which he threw himself into the new themes. Unforgettable was the Features section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitungof 27 June 2000, in which the only thing to read on the first six pages were abstract letters of the human genome which were first completely deciphered by the biochemist Craig Venter. The headline read: "Craig Venter's last words."

The persistence with which Schirrmacher presented his themes not only continued, but the illumination from all sides, from all involved and uninvolved, was unique. Just the recent debates about the dangers of digital culture due to the monopolistic tendencies of the Silicon Valley companies, and the global spying programs of the NSA alone, showed the intellectual verve he brought to debates, illuminating the ups and downs which had been kept hidden behind impenetrable techno-jargon and a blind faith in the future. There aren't that many great critical minds in this field so far.

Journalistic Instincts

Schirrmacher not only recognized kindred spirits early, he gave them his full support: David Gelernter, Evgeny Morozov, Constanze Kurz, George Dyson, or this year's recipient of the German book seller's association's prestigious peace prize Jaron Lanier. In the pages of FAZ's Feuilleton he gave them the type of space and the continuous presence normally known only from academic journals. Still he edited them with the journalistic instincts that enabled him and his authors again and again to aquaint Central Europe's educated public life with California thinking.

This side made Frank Schirrmacher also part of the debate on the other side of the Atlantic. You could even encounter him in America much more often than he actually travelled there. You could for example be high above Central Park on the terrace of New York literary agent John Brockman, who is something of a global Weltgeist of science, which Schirrmacher perceived in the very Hegelian way. It happened quite a few tines on occasions like this, that Brockman's cellphone would be ringing, followed by Brockman greeting the caller with a delighted "Frank!", followed by a lengthy phone conversation about the latest in evolutionary biology, behavioural economics or genetic engineering. If Schirrmacher was in hot pursuit of a topic it could happen that the cell would be ringing five, ten times a day, each call greeted by an excited "Frank!" That's when you knew that in this instance the future would arrive in Europe much faster than usual.

It was not only his insatiable curiousity and his almost childlike excitability that helped him in his search for ever new topics. He also had very powerful gift to win people over. When he met the visionary Yale computer scientist David Gelernter during prep for a panel discussion at the DLD conference in Munich in January of 2010, he immediately recognized one of those kindred spirits him.

That's why he didn't leave it at the panel. For two days he more or less didn't leave the American scientist's side. He circled Gelernter's complex thinking first with probing questions, he discovered common thoughts and passions. A bit later he sifted through his enormous body of readily available European knowledge and was able to bring intellectual nuggets to to the table himself. The encounter lead to a transatlantic friendship that enriched the pages of his Feuilleton for years to come. ...

...Protagonist of future debates

Soon it was Frank Schirrmacher not just a participant but the protagonist of debates about the future. In 2009 he published his book "Payback", which became a bestseller, then The Methuselah Conspiracy, his warning of the coming generation gap of an aging society,  and his book MinimumPayback was the first intellectual engagement with the digital culture that appeared in Germany. 

The subtext of his agenda: Why are we forced in the information age to do what we do not want to do, and how do we regain control over our thinking. It was one of the first great intellectual struggles with the dangers of digital technologies that did not come from the digital circles themselves, and thinking not from the strongholds of the computer scientists, but from the tradition of European humanities. It was a sharp reckoning with the zeitgeist that looked something like a promise of salvation in the digital media. And he made himself so at first not only popular. 

"It is very important to emphasize that we are not talking about cultural pessimism," Schirmacher said in an interview with John Brockman, published on edge.org in autumn of 2009. "We're talking about a new technology, which is de facto a brain technology that has to do with intelligence, thus with thinking, and this new technology collides in a very material way with the history of ideas of European thinking.”  However, it was not holy for him. But he saw the danger that arises when one breaks with the gesture of revolution with the story. When idealism becomes ideology.

When John Brockman first learned of Frank Schirrmacher's death, he was not just sad and shocked like many others. Immediately he exclaimed: "This is a loss that will be felt not only in Germany, but all over the world. He is irreplaceable. He managed to make intellectual life in Germany trump that of America because he dared to put issues on the table that no one in America wanted on the agenda". 

After Payback, his next book was Ego: The Game of Life, in which he which analyzed the effects of a Internet-based world economy driven by greed. At the same time presented an ever-sharper critique of capitalism in the once very conservative Feuilleton of the FAZ. On Thursday Frank Schirrmacher died in Frankfurt of a heart attack. . He leaves his wife, an adult son and a small daughter. Not only the man will be missed, but also his many unwritten books, his unguided debates. He was 54 years old. 

[German language original article.]