Surveillance, Technology & The Future of Democracy
As part of SDI's "Foundations of Democracy" series, we are asking academics and thinkers from around the world what conditions they believe we need to have in place as a society to enable a meaningful and equal democracy.
Dr. Roslyn Fuller speaks with best-selling German author Andreas Eschbach about his work, the relationship between technology and democracy and his views on the future.
RF: Mr. Eschbach, you are the author of many works of fiction, including several books that have become bestsellers in Germany. Not only can I say from first-hand experience that your books are very good, they are also clearly very popular.
In your work, you often write about futuristic topics or fantasy or a combination of those two things, and your books are often very technology-oriented. What has drawn you to write about these topics?
AE: I think this comes from my own reading history. I was fascinated by science fiction from an early age. I read every book with a spaceship or a foreign planet on its cover, and I was interested in science and technology. In the beginning, my plan was to become an engineer, because everybody told me you couldn’t make a living from writing. So, I tried something else first, but I failed at that. I arrived at being a writer of mainly what people call science fiction novels via a very long path. I’m not so interested in genres. I have an idea, I write it as well as I can, and I leave it to the booksellers to put it on a shelf where they think it fits.
RF: The impression I get when reading your work is there is kind of a question that you explore in your books. That you start with a premise and spin it out in a way that often involves elements of reality, but also elements of seeming unreality or technology that doesn’t exist yet.
AE: Yes, I write about subjects that somehow excite me or fascinate me or unsettle me. For example, I’ve written a book about the end of the petroleum age which is a very unsettling thing. If one wants to find a certain common denominator in my writing, it is generally the future of humankind that interests me. I try to find out what is inside a subject, all of the paths it could go along. In my lifetime, I have seen many technologies that did not yet exist come into being, and I have experienced many moments that were previously unthinkable. Even the current pandemic – it was something that was unthinkable a few years ago for most people, but not for me.
It’s a scenario that was the subject of a lot of books, which were science fiction then, but no longer are today.
RF: Yes, it does feel a little like living through science fiction. One of your books that I particularly wanted to discuss today is called NSA. It is one of your more recent books, and the events in that book are written as if they occurred during the Nazi period, but with modern technology. So, it’s as if the Nazis had the internet, cell phones, etc. Could you tell us a bit about that book and the themes you address in it?
AE: The first thing I have to say is that the book is not about the Nazi time or the Third Reich. I am not particularly interested in that era. The Third Reich is a kind of background to the question of what can possibly go wrong with digital technology and social media and the internet. I tried to illustrate the worst-case scenario of the use of centralized data. So, actually it is a novel about our time only set in the past. Everybody has a picture of that past and it is a kind of emblematic dictatorship – it is ‘the’ dictatorship.
And it all came from the Snowden case. After Snowden made public what he knew about the NSA, the American NSA, we had a lot of discussions among friends and I realized that most people cannot imagine what is possible with the misuse of data. At one point in one of these discussions I said, ‘Just imagine if Hitler had had today’s technology!’ and then I stopped and thought, ‘Oh – that would be a good book’. And then I sat down and wrote it.
RF: It is quite a dark book, understandably, and one that covers all kinds of technology. One of the things that interested me most was in the opening scene – and you are very good at writing opening scenes – in which the authorities are correlating data to calculate the calorie consumption of a household and therefore able to find people who are being hidden in these households.
You also discuss facial recognition technology in the book, so maybe you could tell us a little bit more about that as well, because obviously you did a lot of research into these things when writing this book.
AE: Yes, I made use of something that I had conceived of many years ago. I have a short but significant past as an entrepreneur. In the 1990s, I had an IT company together with a partner and at that time we conceived of a workshop about how to handle databases, SQL and all this stuff. It was just a normal computer course, but with the added element of raising awareness of what is possible to do if we connect data from different sources about the same person.
This was targeted at companies, so, for example, we looked at what people eat in the canteen. So, for example, we said, if someone is always taking a certain kind of food, maybe he is ill, so we should not promote him, things like that. The idea was to provide data from which the participant of the course would draw their conclusions.
Unfortunately, this workshop never took place. No one was interested, so we dropped it, but I still had the ideas and some of the concepts I had used.
There are a lot of examples in the real world. For example, marketing firms that know that you are pregnant before you do and target ads towards you, just because they have concluded from different sources that there must be something going on. So, I used examples that are absolutely real. This is something one could have done at the time.
RF: You mentioned the Snowden revelations - it seems to me that in some ways privacy has become a big issue in our society, but in some ways it has not. It has become a big talking point, obviously. It is something that many people are concerned about, but at the same time we all continue to give away our privacy in many ways. There are even more things like Alexas and Fitbits, which you didn’t even go into in your book, devices that people wear or use completely voluntarily that are recording a whole lot of information about them. Where do you see the political state of play at the moment? Although there is often a discussion of privacy, it seems that most consumers care a lot less than I would have thought about this and we all continue to put our information out there. Where do you see this going in the real world in the future?
AE: Yes, I didn’t go into such details because of the background of the story. I postulated a very robust basic computer technology at the time of the Third Reich, so things like Alexa – the wet dream of every surveillance technician – was out of the range of this, and things like Fitbit didn’t work well with the story.
But yes, I think there are two different reasons for what you have described. One is that we are careless. Something is useful, so we use it and we have not yet had bad experiences with it. The other thing is that people want to present themselves on Instagram and Facebook and tell the world as much as possible about themselves, to be kind of ‘famous’, so to say. There has been an inversion here. Previously, there were some figures, kings and queens and politicians, who were famous and we knew a lot about them. Movie stars would be another example. And the common people you didn’t think about.
Today, it is the inverse.
We can know a lot about our neighbours, or at least how they present themselves, most of which, of course, if often better than the reality. But we know less and less about those kinds of people who were previously the famous ones. What do you know about Larry Page? Almost nothing. We just know his name and his face and that’s it. They don’t participate on social media and so on. The powerful people today care very much for their privacy and the common people now don’t. So we are making ourselves prey.
RF: That’s an interesting point, because even in the ‘olden days’ a few decades ago, movie stars would sometimes complain about their privacy. They would try to present a certain image of themselves and try to avoid people scrutinizing them other than that. So, in a sense we are kind of awash in information and maybe not scrutinizing the people we should be scrutinizing.
RF: Because we are a democracy organization, we’re obviously also interested to get your views on democracy. When we were setting up this interview, you made an interesting statement: you said that in your opinion digital technology is inherently undemocratic. Could you elaborate on that a little bit and on your thoughts on the relationship between digital technology and democracy?
AE: Actually if one looks into every technology it is top-down; there is something in the centre which commands the rest of it. If we take digital technology, a computer has to have an operating system and every operating system, apart from the most primitive one in the beginning, divides its users into classes. There are normal users and there are the administrators, the admins. The admins have absolute power, they can do whatever they want. They can manipulate your data without you noticing it. The user has no say in any of this. He can do what he is allowed by the admin. So, we have this hierarchy built into the technology and it cannot work in any other way from the technical standpoint. There is no democratic bicycle, for example.
But I think the term digital democracy, I suppose, concerns voting over the internet. Maybe you can explain, actually, what you mean by that?
RF: Sure, of course. Some applications are focused on that - the idea that everything stays the same but you just vote online.
My idea of democracy, personally, is based on Athenian democracy, which involved mass participation on one side, but also a kind of ever-changing group of administrators. They would have picked administrators randomly, they would have picked a lot of them and they rotated them all of the time, because they really wanted to prevent corruption. And this was actually at the time a quite effective system for that.
They also backed it up by punishing corruption very harshly, but the rapid involvement of lots of people all the time also really helped. It created a lack of predictability of who would be in charge of what and also immense transparency. By involving so many people, it was very hard to keep secrets. And we are talking lots and lots of people compared to the population.
I am more of a direct democrat or kind of a mass participatory democrat and digital means can be a way of achieving that to some extent.
But you are right in your concerns, and I personally do not advocate just voting like now just online.
I’m quite paranoid. Even with things like blockchain, I am always thinking that there is always something I don’t know. That’s my view, anyway.
But perhaps you have your own perspective on that.
AE: Yes, avoiding corruption is certainly an under-appreciated goal. I think avoiding corruption is essential to a good government. The only thing is … well, in Silicon Valley, there is this standard question, ‘How does this scale?’
The Greek cities were small compared to today and with size comes complications, so would this work in today’s world with different magnitudes of people?
I think what we actually want today is not to participate in everything, because the world is so complicated that no one wants to work himself into everything that is important to make a decision and then just vote. It is too much effort for too little influence. What we actually want to do is to outsource the task of governing or managing the society to some people we pay to do it. It is a kind of management job, actually.
But the problem is the people who are available for that job. They are sometimes of, to put it mildly, questionable competency! Some even already start under the suspicion of corruption, but we don’t seem to have anything better.
So, I would start my contemplation here. Why is this so? What are the mechanisms behind the selection process? For example, how could Donald Trump ever arrive on a ballot? And what can be done about it? How can we improve this selection process?
Regarding direct democracy, well, as a German, the Swiss are, of course, our neighbours, and I lived in the south of Germany, so Swiss direct democracy was something I was very aware of.
They vote very frequently on local issues and they even raise their own taxes, because they want to have a swimming facility or something else in their town and they need to pay for it.
You normally don’t know who is the head of government in Switzerland, because it’s kind of unimportant. And I think this is a good sign, actually.
What we are doing in today’s election process is that we still elect ‘kings’ or ‘queens’. We elect rulers, but actually what we want are managers. A king is somebody who leads his people to a war, to conquer other countries and things like that. This is of no use today. The world has already been divided up and these divisions are fixed. We have established processes. There isn’t much left to invent. So what we need are managers who manage all these things and set the rules of the game fairly. This is what they have to do.
RF: That is an interesting distinction and I think there is a lot in that. But have all the big decisions already really been made? We do live in a world where we have richer and richer and richer people. Something else I wanted to talk to you about, was a book you wrote about twenty years ago, called Eine Billion Dollar (in English, A Trillion Dollars). In that book, your premise is that this average guy inherits a trillion dollars via complex mechanisms going back to Medieval times, and he is supposed to ‘save the world’ with this enormous amount of money. Obviously a trillion dollars is still a lot of money, but there are people today who control hundreds of billions of dollars. We have moved a lot closer to the point where someone could have a trillion dollars than we were twenty years ago.
AE: And he couldn’t save the world. At this point, he could maybe save a bank with that amount of money!
I discussed this in the book itself, because even at that time there were funds like BlackRock that controlled more than a trillion dollars. In the book, I discussed the difference between owning and ‘being worth’ a certain amount of money. For example, you could be worth a hundred billion dollars in stocks, that is the number of stocks you own multiplied by the current stock market price.
But the stock market price would immediately plummet if you started to sell them. It is not the same as owning that amount of money. If you own money you are absolutely free to spend it, if you own stocks you are not. You have responsibilities, you have restrictions.
There was even news some time ago that Jeff Bezos sold a certain amount of his stocks to get $4 billion to invest in his spaceship company, so obviously he didn’t have this money on his bank account.
The wealth distribution is, of course, an important question and throughout history rich people have always influenced governments to their own benefit. I think this is the case even in a small village. If the biggest taxpayer threatens to leave the village, he has the mayor’s ear and the mayor will be willing to make an exception for him. This is what we could call the original sin of corruption.
On the other hand, history has shown that it is impossible to distribute wealth equally and to expect things to stay that way. This will not happen at any time as long as we are human beings.
What I think is that it is a question of the rules of the game. The rules of the game have to be fair. That means equal chances for everybody and also a protection of the weak, protection of those who fail in their efforts. They should not fall too deep otherwise no one would risk anything. But to invest oneself as an entrepreneur has to be worthwhile, otherwise no one would undertake the effort. I may be a little biased as a one-time entrepreneur myself, but I know from my experience that you are risking a lot in building a company, so if you did not expect an advantage from it, you would simply not do it or you would drop out at every obstacle and say, ‘I don’t want to continue this.’ And now there are jobs at stake.
So there have to be rich people, but the question is: how rich should they be? The rules of the game are at the moment not very fair. The wealth distribution in the United States, for example, is beyond crazy. Even people who think it is unfair underestimate the unfairness. So few people own such a lot. This is because they have influenced and influenced and influenced the government. I know in the 60’s the top tax rate in the US was 98% and there were still rich people. And today it is 17% or something. Ridiculous. When someone like Warren Buffett says, ‘I pay less taxes than my secretary’ he is not joking. I believe him.
If you rig the game, you can’t expect an interesting game. This would be like making football games with goals a hundred meters wide and fifty balls or something.
If the rules of football games are changed – and sometimes this happens – there is a worldwide discussion about it and everybody has their opinion and finally they say yes or no. These are tiny, tiny changes, but they know they are important, because they have repercussions and change the outcomes of games and tournaments. We should discuss laws in the same way, because they are also rules of the game and they have to be fair.
But very often today, they pass a law by burying it deep in a law about something completely different. Then they say, ‘this was discussed and this was democratic,’ but it is bad management and it happens more and more.
RF: Considering that you think so much about the future, I am interested to know your predictions and suggestions for it.
AE: This is difficult, but I would like to go back to what I said before about contemplating the selection of people. In Germany, we have a lot of people who have the feeling that we had better politicians thirty or fifty years ago. These were people who were still influenced by the experience of the war.
Politics is a serious matter and today we have people without significant life experience. We had a Minister for Employment who actually had never been employed in her life. She had studied and gone into politics, and well, she was responsible for the rules of the game as far as places of employment are concerned. So her knowledge could only have been very superficial and not comparable to somebody who has real world experience in such things.
We have a lot of people who you would not want to entrust with leading a company. They would run the company into the ground in five years, but we elect them to run the country. I think that is the point to think about: what has gone wrong in the evolution of politicians?
And in Germany, I also think we have far too many parliamentarians. We have sixteen parliaments, one in every Land [federal subdivisions of Germany similar to states in the United States]. On the federal level, the Bundestag has more than seven hundred members, making it one of the biggest parliaments in the world. For such a tiny country it is ridiculous. We should start with having half of them and paying them double.
This leads me to another thing – people who are really clever don’t go into politics, today. They’ll say no.
How the media treats people is another problem. When you are in politics the most important thing that you need is to not be influenced by the things somebody says about you. They rip you up and down and say nasty things and you are supposed to be like a brick to all this – completely unmoved. And this is maybe not the right selection criteria to have, as it promotes people who are insensitive to the needs of the people.
Maybe the amount of criticism and unfair criticism directed at them is too much to let sensitive people live. So, they say, ‘No, I don’t want this’ and they drop out and they do something else.
RF: Yes, it is kind of a stereotype that politicians have extremely high opinions of themselves, but maybe this is just necessary to keep going and a more sensitive person would be crushed. Or maybe it is hard to tell what is sincere criticism and what is just someone, as we would say in Ireland ‘having a go’ at you. I suppose that when you start feeling like someone is just trying to tear you down, you stop paying attention to them. Personally, I think this was the key to Trump’s success – that he just didn’t care. Anyone else would have been crushed by criticism, but his strength was to not care and to be immune to any criticism justified or unjustified of him.
AE: Yes, this was the main problem the world had with him.
RF: I was struck by how – and this is my final question, I promise – you had many varied experiences earlier in your career. You previously ran a company and you tried to become an engineer – was that a software engineer or…?
RF: Oh, wow! So, you did a lot of different things in your life and then you became a writer and that used, in some ways, to be a fairly typical career path for a writer. A lot of people bounced around a lot of different jobs and that experience influenced their writing. However, both in writing and politics, it seems to have become more of a trend today for people to need to be a 21-year-old genius, almost a child protégée, like Mozart or something. Is there a pressure both in politics and writing to succeed at a very young age rather than become a more old and seasoned person who can relate to different people?
AE: Yes, the ideal today is to become a billionaire at twenty and progress from there!
In older times, to become the head of the country was the end of a longer journey. For example, many German chancellors were mayors of big cities, which is obviously good training, because it’s a job where you have to deal with a lot of things that aren’t tiny but not big, either. They are in the middle somewhere. And you get a lot of experience with relationships. Today, there is a kind of fascination with young politicians. The Austrian chancellor is so young he could govern the country for another fifty years if he wanted to and people let him. The French president is also rather young.
This is a part of the problem. But in a way this is what democracy is about. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said democracy is a guarantee that we are not governed better than we deserve. So, if we as a society follow stupid ideas, then we get the government that goes along with it.
RF: It was very interesting talking to you. Thank you so much for taking the time. I’m obviously a huge fan of your work and I hope more of it will be translated into English, because people are missing out on something!