• 55 Voices for Democracy: “The Cult of Short-Termism” by Bernhard Poerksen

    “55 Voices for Democracy” is inspired by the 55 BBC radio addresses Thomas Mann delivered from his home in California to thousands of listeners in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and the occupied Netherlands and Czechoslovakia between October 1940 and November 1945. In his monthly addresses Mann spoke out strongly against fascism, becoming the most significant German defender of democracy in exile. Building on that legacy, “55 Voices” brings together internationally esteemed intellectuals, scientists, and artists to present ideas for the renewal of democracy in our own troubled times. The series is presented by the Thomas Mann House in partnership with the Los Angeles Review of BooksSüddeutsche Zeitung, and Deutschlandfunk.

    The video of Bernhard Poerksen’s talk can be viewed below.

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    A question has stuck in my head for days. It was asked by Jerry Brown, Governor of California until 2019, a climate activist from day one, an experienced politician who ran for US president three times. His question was: “Can we build a civilization based on news and hype?” Brown had invited me to his ranch, a two-hour drive north of San Francisco. We drove in a small 4WD vehicle across parched land. Endless dust-blown pastures with yellowish, wilted grass and the occasional dried-up creek bed. There were hardly any animals left out here, he told me. Only insects, lizards, sometimes coyotes. Livestock production had become unprofitable. And it was, he said, getting hotter and more inhospitable year after year. The olive trees that still grow here had to be treated with a kind of sun protection spray so that they too would not dry up. He could experience the catastrophe of climate change here and now, he said.

    Brown’s innocent-sounding question — whether it may be possible to build a civilization based on news and hype — contains two explosive propositions. First, what is new and interesting, and what dominates the media at the moment is not necessarily what is actually relevant. Did a politician briefly take off his mask on a plane and thus violate COVID regulations? Is some kind of professional troublemaker causing a stir by posting another hate tweet? Are Donald Trump and his lies making a comeback? In no time, this is followed by a flood of comments and responses. From the interplay of social and editorial media emerges the hype — targeting individuals (instead of processes) and obsessed with character and personal morality issues (instead of ideologies and programs). The problem is that attention is inevitably scarce and that it can be invested only once. Those who are captivated by all this cannot think about anything else during this time. This means the more dominant the fake news and the bigger the general excitement about pseudo topics, the more massive the obstruction of halfway meaningful debates. At least for a few days or weeks, one mentally lives in a sphere of white noise, in a cloud of nothingness. None of this remains. None of this is has any importance for the future. And none of this is really relevant for action.

    Brown’s question contains a second, more fundamental dimension, however. Ever since taking this tour of the heat- and sun-scorched ranch, I have been thinking that public attention, in the face of today’s looming crises, has been stuck in the wrong time sphere. We respond in a short-term mode to dangers that require long-term thinking. The American ecologist and author Stewart Brand has developed a small, elegant thought model that helps refine this idea. He distinguishes between different time spheres and speeds of civilization. Changes in nature and the evolution in the animal kingdom happen extremely slowly, at the pace of centuries and millennia. Cultural change, too, takes a long time. Politics, ideally, is determined by a medium speed that rejects the real-time hustle and bustle. Trade, on the other hand, responds quickly. Finally, the world of fashion is extremely fleeting, mood-driven, a merely seasonal affair determined by a suddenly erupting hype. According to Brand, the fundamental difficulty is that humans in the Anthropocene are changing their environment in ever extensive ways and for centuries and millennia to come while the human brain is governed by a pathologically short attention span that does not grasp these changes in their deep temporal dimension — and therefore cannot find a way to debate and address these changes.

    So, somebody has yet again called for banning domestic flights or reducing the consumption of cheap meat? And in the blink of an eye, we have another trendy (and trending) spectacle about the terror of virtue and green hyper morality, complete with the latest poll on the topic. The all-important question of what to do to somehow halt climate change in the face of forests fires, droughts, and heat-related fatalities receives no attention or discussion. This, after all, would require different temporal horizons; it would require long-term planning and contentious debates driven by content. And it would require bidding farewell to fetishizing novelty, excitement, the merely sensational and confrontational.

    The cult of short-termism has toxic effects. For it allows political action to shrink to overheated reactive business, fetters the conceptual imagination, and results in a syndrome that the sociologist Elise Boulding has called “temporal exhaustion.” In 1978, she wrote, “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.” Yet it is this very long-term thinking and a relaxed debate, in the best sense of the word, about a different, ecologically compatible and socially and politically acceptable future that is of existential necessity in the face of today’s crises — whether we are talking about climate change, species extinction, the fight against pandemics, the triumph of an aggressive populism, or the dangers of disinformation. All of these topics are not even remotely addressed by the flaring spectacle and hype of the moment. It is as though one was staring at a few individual whitecaps, at the sea spray whirling in the wind, while the important thing is to develop an eye for the big picture and a feeling for the tectonic shifts taking place below the surface of the sea. Being caught up in the moment becomes dangerous when it is necessary to act quickly and decisively, globally, and with foresight — knowing that the effects, as in the case of climate change, may make themselves felt only several decades later. This is the situation we are stuck in right now.

    Sometimes, in dark, pessimistic moments, I cannot shake the feeling that this is indeed the real appeal of nonsense news and media hype: displacing what is important, displacing the really critical things with the merely sensational, flashy, banal things that flicker across our screens and displays in numbing intensity. I am not saying that this kind of distraction happens deliberately — this would be unfounded conspiracy thinking. It is rather that the excitement of the moment represents a flight from complexity and an easing of a restlessness and an anxiety about the future that has been around for some time. And yet one must add immediately that there are all kinds of disinformation professionals in the media business who deliberately launch topics (and relegate others, through the skillfully orchestrated littering of public space). One need only think of a media mogul such as Rupert Murdoch, who has transformed the disorientation of entire societies into a business model. He has managed to destabilize the political situation on three continents at once. In the UK, his people promoted Brexit with false claims. In Australia, they declared the fact of human-made climate change to be a fabrication, even as the country was on fire and billions of animals were driven out of their habitats or burnt to death. And in the United States, Murdoch’s Fox News helped Donald Trump get elected.

    But let me emphasize once again: ordinarily, it simply happens that we allow ourselves to be distracted. Not because some media moguls pursue their sinister plans, but because the interplay of human psychology, digital economy, and modern media technologies creates its own pull — a pull that the writer Jenny Odell has called an “arms race of urgency.” With everyone being able to join in by posting and commenting, the fight for attention gets tougher and tougher. Matching the interests of the public, human longings, intentions, and fascinations can be spied upon — and nascent hypes can be fueled — in ever more refined and perfect ways. So that, at the end of the day, millions of people around the world laugh about the same video and wonder what happened to the baby lion that a baboon somewhere in South Africa had dragged into a tree for grooming and cuddling. The baby lion/baboon story, by the way, was a global hype. Thanks to the hard currency of real-time rates, we know that so-called interspecies love stories receive a crazy number of clicks.

    But the problem is, of course, not a few individual stories going viral. The problem is the systematic exploitation of human attention. And we cannot only talk about this form of abuse in the individualistic, non-political categories of digital detox enthusiasts and mindfulness gurus who turn the global problem of information organization into a personal wellness issue, according to the motto: “Let’s get away from the general news smog. I need quality time for myself!” Attention is a fundamentally political category. The real-time rush of an excitement industry that does not see its audience as responsible citizens but instead degrades them to gullible users eager to click around does not just increase the stress level for every individual. This real-time hustle and bustle eats up energies to think about the future. It robs the public debate of substance. It narrows perspectives by creating a climate of collective fixation on the present, an atmosphere of the total now.

    So, what to do? How to promote long-term thinking to make the existential crises of our times heard — and to make them count? I too would love to have a few quick answers and ready-made recipes, but these do not exist. Stewart Brand, together with others, is building a gigantic clock in a mountain in Texas that is supposed to tick for 10,000 years and, as a cult site, inspire a different, long-term kind of thinking. At age 83, Jerry Brown in interviews and statements continues to attack the weakening of the political imagination through nonsense topics — that is, he chooses the tool of criticism. I believe that we have long needed a kind of planetary journalism that, from an eagle’s perspective, sorts the developments, models long-term thinking, sees sustainability as a news factor, analyzes efficient forms of crisis management, and vehemently demands this kind of crisis management from our increasingly short-termist politics.

    All of this is certainly important. But what could every single one of us do right here and now? In her book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell unfolds a simple suggestion: tune out for a while, turn off, disrupt the fixation on the spectacle of the moment. Not, however, (and this is the crucial point) in order to pamper your soul but as an act of self-affirmation and resistance, as an intellectual declaration of independence. The important thing is to uncover one’s very own thoughts and to be constantly searching for new alliances and for the right mix of contemplation and participation, knowledge and engagement. In fact, we have not lost this freedom to withdraw while we move forward toward an even deeper involvement. True, it has become more difficult to withdraw, but it is still possible. For we human beings are “lords of our own tiny skull-size kingdoms,” as the writer David Foster Wallace once said. That means we can avert our gaze and ignore the attention-cannibals and provocateurs du jour in order to focus on a single, truly dramatic question in our crisis-ridden time: what does really matter?

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