Humanistic Realpolitik for a Digital Age

This week on Wednesday, I had the honor to speak to the European Parliament in a conference titled “politicians in a communications storm”. The question the parliamentarians were grappling with was how complex humanistic ideas such as the European project can be secured and developed in a world of #brexit, #therealdonaldtrump, and the #ColombianPeaceProcess. Then on Thursday, I spoke on a panel with Prof. Broy and Prof. Picot at the Fujitsu Forum in Munich on the question of how Bavaria, Germany, and Europe can shape the future of our digital network societies.

There are no simple answers and no mono-causal explanations of how we got to where we are and what needs to be done. But it is clear that the situation is serious, necessitates continuous soul-searching, and coordinated action. Here’s a write-up of my argument.


The change we are experiencing in how political consensus is constructed in our world societies is similar to what we experienced 500 years ago in Europe with the reformation. After Martin Luther’s blog entry on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, it took more than 130 years until political consensus making was again stabilized with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The combination of a new technology (be that the printing press or the internet) with new modes of thinking changes a lot in how humanity organizes.

There are three technological drivers that are changing our res publica in a way that we seriously need to search our souls on what we value and how to politick for it.

#CloudandSocialMedia: The first is a shift in the base metaphor of organization. Until very recently territorial sovereignty or boundary-drawing as originally derived from Roman private law defined how we organize humans into non-natural entities such as corporations, civil society organizations, or states. Today the network defined through the active communication channel has overtaken sovereignty as the defining principle. The network as a base metaphor is more malleable and allows new modes of governance and politics. Social media politics has new upsides such as the possibility of including the formerly marginalized and new downsides such as echo chambers, fake news, and the rule of algorithms. Fact-based, human-centric reasoning has not yet fully developed its stride in this world.

#AIandData: The second is a shift in reasoning. With the renaissance, the scientific revolution and enlightement humanity has embarked on a journey, where the human was established as central to all our inquiries and the mode of reasoning was defined as deductive. This mode of reasoning which theoretically freed humanity from the shackles of self-imposed immaturity by “daring to know” (sapere aude). Today, in juxtaposition the algorithmic mining of unstructured data allows us (or machines) to take decisions not on a deductive understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, but by trusting the power of inductively produced patterns. Combined with developments from narrow artificial intelligence to general AI and possibly super intelligence, we need not only develop ethical frameworks for non human reasoning entities, but also re-position humanity in our metaphysical universe.

#BlockchainandIoT: The third shift is a  shift in value creation. With the idea of “software eating the world” most value that is created in innovation, organization, production, marketing, and distribution has been digitized, with the Internet of things, every atom in the universe can principally be addressed and manipulated digitally. With blockchain technologies, the distribution of values, both digital and analag can be organized without centralized intermediaries. This forces any entity that has build its business model on taking the role of a Hobbesian Leviathan, be it a bank, energy company or government to reevaluate its role.



The closest historical analogy to the type of questions we are today confronted in world society are the political battles surrounding the Roman republic in the times of Cicero. With all his oratory acumen Cicero tried to defend the complex idea of reason, freedom, and political self-determination in a world where corruption, wars, the expansion of the empire, populism and strong men defined the age.

“For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked.”

Ultimately, he failed. However, in his writing he has left us with a realpolitical mode of reasoning that we can use to develop approaches to translate the societal values that are dear to us into a world circumscribed by #cloudandsocialmedia, #AIandData or #BlockchainandIoT.

“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.”

A Call to Action

In order to defend what we value, we need to develop a clear operational strategy. The question of how complex humanistic ideas such as the European project can be secured and developed must be be addressed on three different levels, the tactical, the political-strategic, and the meta-physical.

#Tactics: As politics is decided on and between different social media platforms, we need to quickly scale up our social media teams in size and capacity. The tactical knowledge of how to engage authentically on twitter, facebook, snapchat, etc. needs to be continously be developed and updated. The arms race is on and can only be won by

#Politics: Unfortunately, today social media teams today serve as a support function. This is a big mistake. Politicians and other strategists need to fully understand the possibility spaces of network society and make their social media and cloud advisors their number one sparring partners. Only when the network is in the DNA of any strategy, will they succeed in our digitally networked world.

#Metaphysics: Only be delineating the possibility spaces of our digitally networked universe and by asking tough ontological questions on the role of humanity can we start translating that what is dear to our hearts into it. Our believes in the rule of law, redistribution, social security, equality of opportunities, the sanctioning power of statehood, and human rights need to be closely inspected, clarified, translated, politicized, defended, and further developed.

We are a privileged generation that is living on the cusp of one of the biggest transformations of humanity. The translation of the principles that make humans human into digital network society is a vocation that needs the collaboration of multiple disciplines on tactical, political, and metaphysical dimensions. It is not a specific fight against #brexit, #trump or for #peaceincolombia, but a general revolution of what it means to be human in digital network society. A daunting task that needs to be addressed step by step or in the words of Beppo Roadsweeper in Michael Ende’s Momo,

“You see, Momo,’ he told her one day, ‘it’s like this. Sometimes, when you’ve a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you’ll never get it swept.’

He gazed silently into space before continuing. ‘And then you start to hurry,’ he went on. ‘You work faster and faster, and every time you look up there seems to be just as much left to sweep as before, and you try even harder, and you panic, and in the end you’re out of breath and have to stop – and still the street stretches away in front of you. That’s not the way to do it.’

He pondered a while. Then he said, ‘You must never think of the whole street at once, understand? You must only concentrate on the next step, the next breath, the next stroke of the broom, and the next, and the next. Nothing else.’

Again he paused for thought before adding, ‘That way you enjoy your work, which is important, because then you make a good job of it. And that’s how it ought to be.’

There was another long silence. At last he went on, ‘And all at once, before you know it, you find you’ve swept the whole street clean, bit by bit. What’s more, you aren’t out of breath.’ He nodded to himself. ‘That’s important, too,’ he concluded.”

Let’s start sweeping the street!

About Philipp

Philipp Müller works in the IT industry and is academic dean of the SMBS. Author of "". Proud father of three amazing children. The views expressed in this blog are his own.

19. November 2016 by Philipp
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