Apr 16, 2022 • 1HR 17M

In Conversation with Elke Schwarz

Imperfect world

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Christopher Hobson
’Imperfect world’ is a series of conversations exploring exploring where politics, society, and technology meet. Hosted by Japan-based scholar, Dr Christopher Hobson.

In this episode, I speak with Elke Schwarz, a scholar based at Queen Mary University of London, working on the political and ethical implications of digital technologies and autonomous systems. Recently, she has been returning to the insights of Günther Anders, another 20th century thinker who foreshadowed the dangers that come with untethered technological development. Anders’ thought was profoundly shaped by the dawning of the atomic age, with the use of a nuclear weapon at Hiroshima marking ‘day zero’ in the history of humankind. He argued it was demonstrated on this day, ‘that the history of the world might no longer continue’, because ‘we are capable of cutting its thread’. What Anders powerfully highlighted are the dangers that come from technological advancements outstripping our political and moral capacities. Applying Anders’ thinking to the present moment, Schwarz reflects that, ‘with contemporary AI, the rift between our products and our moral imagination has become a steep abyss.’ She outlines the three main theses that Anders presented in the first volume of The Obsolescence of Humankind:

  1. ‘that we are no match for the perfection of our products,

  2. that our scope for producing things outstrips our ability to imagine their impact and take responsibility, and

  3. that we seem to assume that it is permissible (if not desirable) to do what we are capable of doing.’

We explore these ideas in our conversation, considering them in reference to categories like judgment and responsibility, and reflecting on whether we should be fearful or not. In many ways, this episode builds on, and echoes, the conversation I had with L.M. Sacasas, examining how digital technologies are shaping the conditions in which we think and act. Our discussion commences with this quote from Anders:

The more complex the apparatus within which we are embedded, the greater its repercussions, the less we can see, the more diminished is our ability to understand the processes of which we are part, or understand their implications. In short, despite being human-made and maintained, our world becomes increasingly opaque as it eludes both our imagination and perception.

This points to one of the great challenges we are now grappling with. Echoing these fears of Anders, Langdon Winner once warned that, ‘in the technical realm, we repeatedly enter into a series of social contracts, the terms of which are revealed only after the signing’. The political and ethical consequences of this dynamic form the basis of my discussion with Elke Schwarz.

This conversation has been cross-posted on the ‘Imperfect world’ podcast feed. It was produced with support by a grant from the Toshiba International Foundation. Previous episodes: IW01, IW02, IW03, IW04, IW05, IW06.