An Interview with Kathrin Passig: “There’s No Point Waiting for Your Opponent to Become Extinct”

Kathrin Passig and Sascha Lobo, the writers of “Internet – Segen oder Fluch
Kathrin Passig and Sascha Lobo, the writers of “Internet – Segen oder Fluch | Photo (detail): Jan Bölsche

The Internet polarises opinion on subjects such as copyright law, privacy and the decline of print media. In her book “Internet – Segen oder Fluch” (The Internet – Blessing or Curse) writer and Ingeborg Bachmann Prize-winner Kathrin Passig (with co-author Sascha Lobo) appeals for a fair and objective debate.

Ms. Passig, your book “Internet – Segen oder Fluch” does not come down in favour of either side (the sceptics or the optimists). It is an appeal for a more objective discussion of the Internet and the controversial issues it raises. Why does one so frequently find extreme positions like the ones in your book title in debates about the Internet?

Presumably, that is mainly because the Internet is still quite new. But extreme positions are not unusual in old debates – discussions on religion are not always relaxed or balanced either. I believe that extreme positions about the Internet are so popular at the moment because both positions give status and media attention to their advocates. People who approve of all the changes seem young, technically competent and progressive. That is also an advantage on the labour market, of course. Newly established companies often have flat hierarchies – you get ahead fast. And in established enterprises, being pro-Internet helps develop your status vis-à-vis more experienced and more senior staff. The critics tend to be those whose jobs or lifestyles have changed as a result of the Internet, sometimes clearly for the worse when jobs or entire sectors disappear. But sometimes change is simply unpopular in itself unless one believes it will bring clear advantages. Great media attention is being given to conservative positions because the jobs of people working in radio, television and print media are undergoing radical change.

In the discussion about the Internet (e.g. “Is the Internet making people stupid?” “Is the Internet making people lonely?”) you see parallels with historical debates on the social and technical innovations of the day, such as women’s suffrage, the railways and the telephone. What can we learn from that?

Kathrin Passig Photo: Jan BölscheWhen you have found a number of these historical examples, it seems obvious to conclude that every such debate is just a knee-jerk protest against anything new. Later, the innovation turns out to be quite useful after all, the progressive advocates of change were right, and the conservative critics were wrong. But unfortunately, that would be making things too easy for oneself, and I say “unfortunately” because I myself was a public advocate of that attitude for a number of years. During the year before I worked on Internet – Segen oder Fluch, it became clear to me that this classic discussion pattern is rather a sign that something interesting is happening here, a sign that the discussion is about old, stubborn questions that are hard to answer. And that there is no point waiting for one’s opponents to be converted or to become extinct. The debate is just moving on from asking whether it is a bad thing that printing makes it possible for anyone to publish anything to discussing whether it is a bad thing that the Internet makes it possible for anyone to publish anything.

You have been following the Internet and the discussions since the early/mid-nineties. How has your personal attitude to the Internet and the major issues developed since then?

If you happen to be a few years ahead of a social development, in my case due to my date of birth and friends who were crazy about computers, you can easily believe that you have a monopoly on understanding progress. In some respects, I still believe that, and in particular I am convinced that my current habits relating to the computer, Internet, communications technologies and a social life influenced by the Internet will be shared by most people in five or ten years from now. That has been the case since I was fifteen, and I can’t see that changing. It is tempting to conclude that one’s own position is automatically the right one on all controversial issues. Recently, I have not been quite so convinced of that.

Your book came onto the market in Germany in October 2012 and attracted a great deal of media attention. Do you have the feeling that it is already having an impact on some discussions?

Attracting media attention is not the same as sales figures, buying does not mean reading, and reading does not mean agreeing. Besides, with my previous books, I was shocked to realise that the world by no means obediently changes right away when one has written down one’s opinion. So I would tend to say no. In ten years maybe. Then all we have to do is make a comparison with a parallel universe in which Internet – Segen oder Fluch had never been written and we will know what difference it has made.

And what is your personal view about how the Internet will develop? Do you tend towards being sceptical or optimistic?

Optimistic, of course. But I’ve realised that this view is based 80 per cent on my general tendency towards optimism and wishful thinking. Knowledge makes up the other 20 per cent.