Alan N. Shapiro, Autonomy in the Digital Society

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I consider Star Trek to be a great text of Western Civilization

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“I consider Star Trek to be a great text of Western Civilization”

Scientist Shapiro on his vision of progress and the future

Alan N. Shapiro in discussion with Joachim Scholl, Deutschlandradio Kultur


The philosopher and computer expert Alan N. Shapiro explains his ideal for a future as an “employer”: “I don’t create workplaces; I create playing fields,” said Shapiro.

(translated from the German by Darryl Strawberry)


Joachim Scholl: We want to begin futurologically and philosophically with an unconventional mind named Alan N. Shapiro. This American is as much at home in modern computer technology as he is in the universe of Star Trek science fiction, and he connnects both of these without hesitation with the thinking of the philosopher Jean Baudrillard. How that works, Alan N. Shapiro will himself tell us in a moment.

Alan N. Shapiro is recognized as a so-called interdisciplinary thinker. He studied science-technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but also philosophy and literature [at Cornell University]. He has worked as a software developer and has consulted to large companies. The huge worldwide fan community of the Star Trek series reveres Alan Shapiro as the author of the book “Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance,” a book that has a lot to do with the complex world of thinking of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Soon Alan Shapiro will be a guest at the Transmediale conference on futurity in Berlin. And now he is with us. Good afternoon, Mr. Shapiro!

Alan N. Shapiro: Good afternoon!

Scholl: At this conference you will give a talk on the Car of the Future, as we have learned. Didn’t you find it terribly banal to arrive here in an ordinary taxi?

Shapiro: Okay, I had a really interesting talk with the taxi driver about this subject…

Scholl: About cars?

Shapiro: … about the Car of the Future, and I learned something from him, because, a key idea that I have is the car as a new game platform with virtual reality – that the glass on all sides should also be video screens, and then one buys a game cartridge for a few hundred Euros, and then one experiences the car as a cockpit and a simulator, as the successor to the drive-in movie. And then the car has a new, second use, not only as a means of transportation, but now also as an entertainment platform. And the taxi driver said to me: “You’ve got a problem with the heat, I can’t sit with my car in a garage when I’m cold.”

Scholl: [Laughs] Ah ha, those are, how should I say, the practical problems of such futuristic conceptions. With that we are in an area that you have intensively been involved with, Mister Shapiro, namely the Star Trek film series. You devoted an entire book to it. And in this science fiction universe of Star Trek, there are parallel worlds, hyper-realities, people can dematerialize, and you bring these themes together with the philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who said: the world exists more in our imagination than in reality. What does that have to do with Star Trek?

[Is that what Baudrillard said? Joachim, you are a really nice guy and pretty damned smart, but you should meet me for a coffee sometime in Starbucks and I’ll explain to you what Baudrillard really said. I’m trying to be as nice and as diplomatic about this as I possibly can,  I hope that you won’t hate me for saying this in public.]

[As a consequence of this initial error (see below within the next set of square brackets), I chose for the rest of the interview to not say anything about Baudrillard, but rather to talk about French philosophy generally.]

Shapiro: I consider Star Trek to be a great text of Western civilization. The Bible is a great text, Shakespeare is a great text, we see that, in contemporary times, Star Trek is a great text, and these stories in fact tell us a lot about the future. And I believe that all the Star Trek technologies, including time travel, can be brought to fruition in the next 30 years. I’m starting with… I’m founding a company, I am active internationally, we already have 9 members in Frankfurt am Main. It is simultaneously a scientific project to make the breakthrough to Artificial Intelligence. The movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Hal, a computer with autonomous thinking.

For 50 years the project of Artificial Intelligence has failed. Why? Because only computer scientists, who don’t have any idea about philosophy, art, and literature, are involved in it. They exclude those fields of knowledge in order to establish, to found, computer science as a technical discipline. I don’t exclude philosophy, art, and literature. I will make a unification [of these fields with computer science]. And what about French philosophy? IBM, Microsoft, the advanced computer science labs, they are laughing in a cynical way at French philosophy. I am the opposite, I take that very, very seriously, and it is the key to the breakthrough to Artificial Intelligence and a more advanced computer science. This really is the case, we need holistic thinking and sensitivity to the importance of language.

Scholl: Jean Baudrillard asserted that reality, as we commonly perceive it, is under suspicion of being a simulation. Everything is only as real as we imagine it to be, he said, the images that we have of the world have an underlying determining power.

[Joachim, please read my interview with Laura Mitchell for a very clear statement of what Baudrillard means by simulation. He is the great philosopher of our times, Europe’s greatest cultural philosopher, but he became that by thinking in a sociological and cybernetic mode about codes and models. Simulation is a “hyper-pseudo-reality where all experiences and processes are pre-programmed according to a known-in-advance set of behavorial and commodified codes, models, and formulae; nothing is spontaneous, creative, original, truly alive, truly existential or authentic.” (Alan N. Shapiro, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, it will be led by Radical Software”)]

[Your more general observation about “reality being an illusion or a projection of the mind” sounds more like Bishop George Berkeley or the doubting René Descartes than Baudrillard. 99% of what has been written about Baudrillard is wrong.]

Scholl: And there is, in fact, no better philosophy for the age of computers. [On this point you are right] You have just elaborated it. Reality and fiction join together to make virtuality.

Shapiro: Yes, I believe that we need a coming together of reality and virtuality. Baudrillard – I consider him to be a very important thinker, but with respect to New Technologies and New Media, he was a little bit not so well informed. Just like most people from the 1968 generation. I think that in Europe, in Germany, there is unfortunately a split, a generation gap. The sociology professors, those who know a lot about literary studies… a very good example in the German media is the debate between Thomas Gottschalk und Marcel Reich-Ranicki in October 2008. I found that very interesting.

Scholl: About television?

Shapiro: Yes. But of course I am more in solidarity with the position of Reich-Ranicki, because I love literature and so on, but this is a binary opposition. One of them believes in television as entertainment, and that people are too dumb to deal with any serious subjects. Reich-Ranicki is in the tradition of literary studies, creativity, poetry, I respect that totally, but, in this case, true creativity would be to overcome this duality or binary opposition between literature, art on the one side, and entertainment on the other side.

Why can’t we have films and TV series that simultaneously entertain us and offer enlightenment to people, give them education, and make them more creative? And no one… Everything is binary oppositions. Another great French thinker, Jacques Derrida, said that all of Western civilization is stuck in binary oppositions. For example: male and female is also an example of that.

Scholl: Alan Shapiro, philosopher, computer expert, Star Trek fan, guest here on Deutschlandradio Kultur. If I understand you correctly, Mr. Shapiro, the overcoming of binary oppositions is also a part of the New Computer Science, this new Science of which you are the co-founder.

Shapiro: Exactly.

Scholl: How can we imagine the future if we want to overcome binary oppositions? What would be your ideal?

Shapiro: In my company, the members of the company will not work, and I hope that we will have a lot of people in Germany in my company. I have a slogan: I don’t create workplaces; I create playing fields. I am against work, like the young Marx, who spoke about alienated labour, that is Calvinism, Puritanism.

What interests me is freedom, individual freedom, play, creativity, and diversity of activities.  And each so-called worker in my company is a free human being, has no fixed working hours, and I believe that it is possible to achieve a link between creativity and productivity, instead of the usual link between work and productivity. That’s a big part of my vision, and we should all be friends, friendship is the second principle.

Scholl: The company will be called Shapiro Technologies, and its two cornerstones are friendship and “not working.” That sounds of course extremely charming, but one also has to pay the rent.

Shapiro: I don’t throw away work. One way of saying it would be that we will half-work. The New Technologies cry out for creativity. The New Media and New Technologies. With creativity the best products will be accomplished, and not with workers who are unhappy or have a lot of stress in their lives.

Scholl: Alan Shapiro, he is a philosopher, he is a computer expert, he has written books about Star Trek and Jean Baudrillard. Today he was on Deutschlandradio Kultur. Thank you very much for the discussion!

Shapiro: Thank you very much!


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