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    The Symptom Is This Diagnosis
    Frank Schirrmacher’s Non-Fiction Book, Payback, About Our Relationship with Computers

    Frank Schirrmacher. Photo: Tim Wegner. © Karl Blessing Verlag It began as an admission. Frank Schirrmacher, publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, conceded: ‘As for me, I have to confess, I am no longer equal to the mental demands of our time.’ In his bestseller, Payback: Why We Are Compelled To Do What We Don’t Want To Do in the Information Age, and How To Regain Control Over Our Thinking, the author tackles the question: how can we come to terms with the increasingly powerful machines in our lives without being devoured by them?

    Just a few pages into the book the eye of the attentive reader falls on stylistic shortcomings and the first spelling mistakes, which could be forgiven in a personal, lazily scribbled journal, but not in the renowned publisher of a major German newspaper. A total of 28 errors on 211 pages – an appalling record for a book that has, at this point in time (February 2010), survived in the upper ranks of the non-fiction bestseller list for more than ten weeks. Every important daily newspaper has reviewed Payback; the critical approaches to be found in some reviews clearly didn’t create make any big waves and were further smoothed over by mollifying conclusions. If one disregards these extrinsic flaws, what is it that Schirrmacher is trying to say?

    We take pride in our self-presentation on Facebook, greedily pounce on the new iPad, can no longer live without internet and mobile phone: we are hooked on technologies and love the virtual land of limitless opportunity. One click and we’ve bought something, one click and we have the right answer, one click and we change our lives. That in this process not everything is based on chance, that we have long since yielded part of our decision-making to the invisible powers behind our flickering flatscreens, powers that can predict our needs before we even recognise them as such – it is precisely this against which Schirrmacher now warns. The enthralment to technology is devouring us; we are losing our capacity for intuition, spontaneity, creativity, we are ceding thought to machines, have long since unlearned how to read a book and find ourselves, between vibrating text messages and ‘You’ve got mail’ pop-ups, in a constant state of alert that overwhelms our organism. We barely exist outside the internet any more; why, a withdrawal from Facebook even marks the end of social existence, argues Schirrmacher. Not every horror scenario he depicts is fathomable in all its doom and gloom; but the warnings against dependency and the relinquishment of thought are valid and plausible. Even the Darwinist metaphor Schirrmacher brings into play, though somewhat outlandish at first glance, is an interesting approach: we are constantly on the hunt for prey (in this scenario, data). Only the best-informed have a good chance of survival. Yet fighting for survival in the information jungle costs us attentiveness and our instincts: we lose them by focusing solely on fixed data that seem to us to be inarguable truths. The Darwinist upshot is: our stomach may be full; it teems with lots of tasty data. But with every feeding, our brain atrophies further: it can no longer distinguish between what is important and what is unimportant; with every meal it more closely resembles a machine.
     
    So what solution does Schirrmacher offer to free us from our complex dependency? We must change our attitude towards computers, we must regain control over our thinking, which machines have so cleverly wrested from us. In them there also lies an enormous opportunity: they can help us, for in dealing with their perfection, we gain distance from ourselves and recognise that we are incomplete beings, bound by limitations, who nonetheless surpass the machines in certain things: spontaneity, flexibility, and creativity. If we learn to deal with uncertainties, if we develop a critical approach to the omnipresent technology, then machines no longer pose a threat.

    The book is proof of the problem

    As a summary of the newest developments in the technological, neurobiological and psychological world, as a renewed incitement to question our relationship to technology and to computers in particular, this book certainly serves its purpose. Some examples and statistics are interesting: in Schirrmacher’s book they are succinctly summed up and presented. Ultimately, Payback fails not in its content but in its execution, which clearly conflicts with its stated theories: concentration, independent thought, regaining the capacity to read – interestingly, Schirrmacher falls short in just these areas, as is apparent in the shaky argumentation, the lack of precision, and the careless phrasing. This book, intended to serve as a blade of grass for society to clutch at to pull itself out of the morass of voracious new technologies, is not the solution to the problem but rather its exponent, cloaked in the grass-green paper of its dust jacket. It testifies more to deficits of attention than it contains useful means and incitements to combat them.

    Or did Schirrmacher secretly intend this book as a test – to see whether, in the age of information overload, his audience was still capable of distinguishing the important from the unimportant? If so, then the more than one hundred thousand readers, reviewers, and all the others who praised this book have failed, and have offered up proof that they have unlearned reading, lost their intuition and a part of their critical thinking – somewhere behind their keyboards, behind the flickering screen, in the far reaches of the worldwide web.
    Simone Falk
    is a journalist based in Berlin.

    Frank Schirrmacher: Payback. Warum wir im Informationszeitalter gezwungen sind zu tun, was wir nicht wollen, und wie wir die Kontrolle über unser Denken zurückgewinnen [Payback: Why We Are Compelled To Do What We Don’t Want To Do in the Information Age, and How To Regain Control Over Our Thinking], Karl Blessing Verlag, Munich 2009

    Translated by Lilan Patri
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2010

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