Leipzig Book Fair
“Until twenty years ago only serial killers had profiles”

“From Book to Bot” – How did the meaning of self-determination change after the Reformation?
“From Book to Bot” – How did the meaning of self-determination change after the Reformation? | Photo: Tom Schulze

“From Book to Bot” addresses self-determination in the digital age in one of many events organized by the Goethe-Institut at the Leipzig Book Fair. Panellist Andreas Bernard reveals in advance why our criticism of the media would have gone over well rhetorically in the Middle Ages.

The media landscape is changing. That was the case 500 years ago and it is today at an ever more rapid pace. Users must constantly adapt to new developments while some are already speaking of a post-digital society. In times of “augmented reality” and personalized algorithms, a media-historical retrospective of comparable social turning points is worthwhile.
 The Goethe-Institut’s panel discussion at the Leipzig Book Fair brings together ideas of autonomy during and after the Reformation and in today’s digital culture. What’s new? The media historian Andreas Bernard spoke with us about it beforehand in an interview.

Mr Bernard, are the printing press and the beginning of the digital age comparable watershed moments?

Looking at book printing today, we have the advantage of half a millennium between then and now. But we are still in the middle of the digital watershed. So it depends on our perspective. We have the feeling that more has happened in data processing since Google appeared in 1998 than in the last few hundred years before it. But we have to be careful with final diagnoses. We are too contemporary to be able to estimate what kind of caesura we are dealing with. We would need more time to pass for that.
Is it appealing for you to exchange ideas about digital culture and self-determination in a religious context? One of the panellists you will be talking with is a pastor.
The Lutheran Reformation was always strongly concerned with the status of the self and the question of the autonomy and self-determinateness of the subject. Many of the questions that we face today in our digital culture were perhaps raised for the first time in that religious discourse. So there are many connections. It is fascinating when a pastor and a media historian talk about autonomy.
What can we today derive from the media revolution of the Late Middle Ages?
When television was invented they all said people will stop reading books. When the telephone was invented they all said people would stop writing letters. In these cases, it is beneficial to look at the culturally pessimistic verdicts of people like monks and church scholars who had access to writings before book printing was invented. They were afraid people would not write by hand anymore. There is therefore a rhetorical standard repertoire of media criticism that goes from the twentieth century back to the fifteenth century. 
Is digital change impairing our autonomy?
On the contrary, it’s interesting to observe how methods and technologies of digital culture are being used to strengthen autonomy. A “profile” in the social media, mobile phone tracking technologies or self-surveying methods – all of these technologies originated from criminalistics and psychiatry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used to apprehend criminals and madmen. Until twenty years ago only serial killers had profiles. This is one of the most interesting aspects of digital culture: autonomy is drawn from techniques that have a completely different history.
The downside of this is that people sometimes communicate with machines rather than with people. In principle, however, the characteristic of digital culture is not that users believe that they are losing their autonomy or delegating it to machines. This also corresponds to the prevailing rhetoric of the enhancement and enlargement of autonomy.
Think of Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote speeches or any AirBnB commercial: it’s always said that the tools of digital culture make you freer, more autonomous, more independent. This needs to be genealogically questioned.
What risks do you see in digital culture?
If you look at your own location on your smartphone, doesn’t it look as if the police are looking for you? On the one hand, they say all these technologies are necessary to denote a freer, more autonomous subjectivity; on the other hand, we are moving within an aesthetic of suspicion. A very strange shift in technologies and aesthetics of digital culture is at work; perhaps we could speak more of irritations rather than of risks.
There are also studies that show how much we can learn with new technologies about individual voters so they can be sent precisely that information that will steer their behaviours accordingly. This is what interests me: at a time when methods of remote control are more dense and strong than ever, the rhetoric of self-control prevails. We have to find our way within this paradox.

Cultural anthropologist Andreas Bernard is professor at the Centre for Digital Cultures of the Leuphana University of Lüneburg.