Frank Schirrmacher: Ego – Das Spiel des Lebens, A Review

Feb 28th, 2013 | By | Category: Book reviews

Frank Schirrmacher: “Ego – Das Spiel des Lebens”, Karl Blessing Verlag, München 2013, 352 Pages

Frank Schirrmacher provides a somewhat apocalyptical criticism of the mechanisms of financial and commercial markets, or rather of the ways in which they make us defenseless – and reaps extreme reactions: Die Welt labels him a paranoiac, whose conspiracy theory is immune to all facts and counter-arguments ¹, the Süddeutsche Zeitung celebrates him as a capitalism critic of the new generation, beyond the stale left-wing theories of ’68 ².

The idea underlying the game theory according to Schirrmacher – that people do everything just to their own advantage – is dateless. In this respect it can not be said that we “come to deal with this type of thinking” only in our time. The idea itself can neither be proved nor disproved, because as a rule it represents not the thinking of the observed, but of the observer. Schirrmacher is panicking, because he does not see human standards in the world anymore – and makes anonymous powers, an algorithm, responsible for this. But has there ever been a time when human standards were leading in the economy? If you follow the book’s variations – as there can be no talk of patiently developed argumentation – you come across one central motif over and over again: the promise of a total wish fulfillment, if only the rules of the informational capitalism are being unconditionally adhered to. This is Mephisto of the 21st century, and it is amusing to read how Faust succumbs to this temptation and gets finally redeemed by the power of human relationship, which after all always had been there, despite all the alchemy previously applied to produce it.

In the end you have to say it’s not particularly rewarding to read this book. Schirrmacher feeds us with quotes and events whose revolutionary force he keeps summoning like a mantra. He does not argue, but rather trusts that the barrage of unconnected pieces of information will bring about a suggestion of inevitability. Thus he becomes himself guilty of what he accuses the game theory-based digital world: of replacing contextual relations by a large amount of single information pieces.

However, it is worth to take up the problem, which underlies Schirrmacher’s scenario of desaster. Generally, conspiracy theories should be treated with caution. The world turns out to be more complex than usually accepted by these theories. Making gray eminences and mad scientists responsible sounds almost like a testament of helplessness in the face of the anonymity of the mechanisms that appear to take possession of us. But Schirrmacher should better have written a novel, something in the style of MOMO for adults – because it is Michael Ende’s Momo one gets reminded of here, with Men in Gray taking possession of our minds, grabbing us by our desire for recognition, for profit, for efficiency and thus depriving us of our humanity. But, firstly, Schirrmacher lacks the main character, Momo, who is actually inexplicably immune against the Men in Gray and therefore can free the world from their domination. Secondly, I have my problems with Momo, its message being blatantly onesided, untypical of Michael Ende’s works. The same applies to Schirrmacher. But who would earnestly want to take the side of Men in Gray, or, correspondingly, of the game theory? Is it not obviously enough the faceless mask of evil? The objections by the critic of Die Welt are well justified: the game theory is not evil. It appeals to our endeavour to win, but life teaches us that the main prize can only be won by the way of the most beautiful defeat that life has in store for us…

Warning criticism, as in the case of Schirrmacher’s book, has the right to be one-sided. Unlike literature, it doesn’t have to always take the other side into consideration, because it opens up a discussion, it demands and gets reactions. The reactions so far are rather reflexes – either of justification of the “free” market, or of joining in the ultimately undifferentiated warning cry. Is an evaluative judging of the ghost that Schirrmacher paints on the wall possible? I want to try it. For that I will draw on a key concept in Schirrmacher’s book: the digitization, and pick out one aspect that has been rightly emphasised in the review of the Süddeutsche Zeitung: it is certainly the use of electronic data processing, though not solely, that the reduction of the world to its “informational character” is owed to. The “information society” follows the sentiero luminoso of digital databases. It may not be easy to show a direct causal link between the excessive use of computers and the shift in school and university teaching towards the “knowledge transfer”. More plausible is the increasingly spreading coupling of scientific research even in the humanities with data and its large amounts – the catchy slogan of digital humanities is hypnotizing scientists. Now, this method is not only very successful, but it is also not “evil” by itself. Knowledge is indispensable and you can certainly gain knowledge out of characteristic collections and accumulations of data. The “Digital” has not been invented in the information age – it was already the driving force of the Enlightenment.

Is Schirrmacher’s warning cry then needless? No, but Schirrmacher blinds out the alternative that has always been available, he holds back the little girl Momo and the power that enables her to resist the Men in Gray. And this power, that is inherent in every one of us, relativises Schirrmacher’s apocalypse, his version of the Decline of the West. Once again it’s time for a corrective movement, as it was in the late 18th century, with the Romantics protesting against the total digitisation of man by the Enlightenment. Beside the digital identity, provided by the logic of our intellect, there is an analogous identity, enabling us, firstly, to establish relationships and, secondly, making it possible for us not only to know but also to understand. Hegel, actually not a Romantic, argued against the totalization of knowledge and information: to know something doesn’t mean to have understood it. Understanding means relating, and not of large amounts of data, but of observations that I myself have made. Understanding means relating with myself involved as an observer. On the digital level this is not possible, as computers cannot think of themselves as of observers. We have to play this part ourselves, but we shy away from it because what is understood has not the character of pure information anymore, it is now dependent on me. Not in the sense that it is relative to my subjectivity, but in the sense that I am responsible for what I understood, that I cannot weasel out of this relation anymore. The digital world entails the temptation to give up responsibility for the sake of “objectivity”, which is today leading the fashion everywhere, for example in the concept of “lack of alternatives”.

To relate analogously is to establish relationships, hence always to take a certain responsibility, and this leads us immediately out of the egomania postulated by the game theory. Whoever is capable of making relationships is immune to Amazon and Facebook; he would not think he had a lot of friends, just because he gets many bookmarks on social networks. He does know that he is seducible, but he also knows that all digital temptations ultimately prove as mere surrogates for the fulfilment of the one true desire, the longing for communion with other human beings. And he knows that he is living beyond all digital information collected about him, that Amazon won’t get grip on his soul, unlike the devil in Wilhelm Hauff’s The Cold Heart. This lets him face calmly a not so digital future, a future in which people will find their way back to dialogue, not only with other people but also with nature, that speaks to us, if it does not get digitised; with history, whose inner correlations vanish in the course of digitisation; and with the art, which is the most radical negation of the digital ever produced by human culture.

But before we completely turn our back on the Digital and grant the analog side an exclusive right with regard to our culture, it should be said that without “digitality” no logic, therefore no rational cognition and hence no knowledge would be possible. Knowledge and understanding compete within us and no happy medium seems possible between them, but happily enough there is no risk that one of them would disappear to the benefit of the other. Thus, we should say yes to a course correction, especially in education, because we not only fail to reach children and teenagers by teaching knowledge without understanding, but also fail to contribute to the development of that responsible self-determination, which we call personality. Corrections should be made also to our politics, regarding “healthy economy” as the only basis of people’s welfare. But we should deny apocalyptic visions and conspiracy theories, because self-interest, being a part of our personality, nevertheless does not define it. Humans, like orangutans and dolphins, are social beings, capable of empathy, and the game theoretic fiction will by no means be able to deprive us of this evolutionarily ingrained component of our existence.


1. Cornelius Tittel: Die Monster des Doktor Frank Schirrmacher, available at http://www.welt.de/kultur/article113687605/Die-Monster-des-Doktor-Frank-Schirrmacher.html (as of 19.02.2013)

2. Andreas Zielcke: Vom Sieg eines inhumanen Modells , available at http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/frank-schirrmachers-ego-das-spiel-des-lebens-vom-sieg-eines-inhumanen-modells-1.1601727 (as of 19.02.2013)


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