«Exhilarating and terrifying»
Why pop stars sometimes recognize the future more clearly than experts and what the weakness of realism is.
Sure, we live in a world full of upheavals. But how well do we recognize the new when we encounter it? What about our ability to anticipate future developments? The honest answer is we’re not good at it, in fact we’re terrible. And if we meet a clairvoyant contemporary who has a feeling for the future, we usually react like the BBC reporter Jeremy Paxman did, in this interview with David Bowie about the Internet – incredulously amazed and skeptically rejecting.
The skepticism is no wonder, after all this conversation was conducted in 1999, at a time when neither Facebook nor «social media» existed. There were no smartphones and Google was in its early years. Yet Bowie talks here about the Internet as if he could foresee everything that was coming. When the BBC interviewer makes a sceptical face and accuses the pop star of exaggeration, Bowie replies that we have not even «seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society – both good and bad – is unimaginable. I think we're actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.» Facing such prognoses, the journalist has disbelief written across his face. Irritated, he gives cause for concern that the Internet is «just a tool» but Bowie contradicts him, saying «No, it's not. It's an alien life form» and happily adds that it has just landed on earth.
From today's point of view one has to say Bowie was damn right. He was more correct at any rate than many experts who, at that time, applied all the usual objections known from the history of technology to the Internet – What is it good for? Who needs such a thing? This is only a temporary fashion, nothing changes as a result – all the arguments that Kathrin Passig once wonderfully described as standard situations of technology criticism.
The philosopher Heraclitus preached 2,500 years ago that nothing is more constant than change. Yet we still find it difficult to accept this insight. Instead, we insist that our judgement be «realistic» and demand that it be based on proven facts and empirical data. But with empiricism and the proven there is one issue – they always refer to the past, never to the future, and they ignore the seemingly unimportant details and vague nuances, which can surprisingly turn out to be formative forces of the future.
This is why even the greatest realists are often so terribly wrong in their assessment of the new and unknown, as IBM boss Thomas Watson was, when in 1943 he predicted «a world market for maybe five computers». That is why the history of forecasts is always «a history of surprises and surprise effects» as historian Joachim Radkau states in his History of the Future. The Nazi dictatorship was not foreseen, just like the economic miracle that followed the war shortly after. Economists were just as surprised by the oil crisis as by the protests of 1968 and the environmental movement. And the fact that German reunification would take place in 1989 – just a few months after the experts considered this just as unlikely as the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
The «realists» often overlook the fact that the facts on which they base their worldview are only a selection and that there are countless other possibilities that often come true against all expectations. Seen this way, realism would actually mean always reckoning with the unexpected. Yet for this, one has to leave behind the hype of facts and the security of empiricism, and develop confidence in the incalculability of the future. In other words – in order to be able to act, one must not be too realistic. What is needed is the life energy of confidence, which also brings a certain amount of trust to the still unfinished future. And which, like David Bowie, does not shy away from taking an equally close look at the «exhilarating and terrifying» future developments.
Written by: Ulrich Schnabel