Translation of the Original Article by Siegfried Lautenbacher and Alexander Klier
The digital enlightenment also represents the "output of man from his self-inflicted immaturity". The question of the political survival of the democracies depends on the answer to this question, which already Immanuel Kant was very concerned with.
Picture: Camille Flammarion, L'Atmosphere: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888), pp. 163 on Wikimedia Commons. Usage as a public domain file.
"Immaturity is the inability to use one's mind without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-inflicted if its cause is not due to lack of understanding but to resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another" (Immanuel Kant here).
The time when Immanuel Kant wrote the small essay "Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment" was probably similarly tumultuous as the year 2016. In particular, the still young natural sciences and the technological possibilities based on them had a radical impact on people's thinking. They were possibly similarly misunderstood as the social and digital media today.
The fact that Donald Trump won the elections in the United States was indeed surprising and unpredictable. The reactions to this are, however, much more astonishing and testify in an incredible way how little social technologies have been understood in their effective principles. And that applies in two directions:
- On the one hand, in the direction of the apologists of the new technology, who are almost superstitious, with ever-new concepts such as Big Data, assuming that these technologies bring (automatically) knowledge to humans and free them through "enlightenment".
- On the other hand, the reaction is much more common in the direction of misunderstood technology with the mistaken belief that they were the problem and reason for the difficulties of modern societies.
The interesting thing is that the two currents are not always properly distinguishable, therefore, in practice the discussions quite happily mix. Reason enough after many depressing events this year to reflect why a digital education is necessary and how the exit from self-inflicted immaturity might look.
"It is therefore difficult for every individual man to work his way out of his immaturity, which has become almost natural to him" (Kant, as above).
Going back to the election of Donald Trump: That he won the election with the help of the social media makes sense, because like no one else before him, he used Twitter, for example, to bring his simple messages and answers to the people in the truest sense of the word. However, to say the he won the election due to his Big-Data analysis or even because of certain algorithms lacks not only every scientific basis, but is pure superstition or “magic digitalism”, as Sascha Lobo identifies very well here. Concerning the use as well as the influence of social media, it is true, what is true of any technology: as the work of men, the effect depends on how they are embedded in society, how they are used and how critically it is reflected on, or how competent the corresponding users are. Digital education would help to bring the technology back to people with its advantages and disadvantages and not to over-inflate it. This is, however, a task for society and its organizations, not for the individual people, who would be overwhelmed with this task.
"For this supposed knowledge is only an unconstrained holding-for-self-evident, which, on closer examination, turns out to be an untenable illusion" (Sokrates via Wikipedia here).
The second major debate, which is currently being fueled by the election of Donald Trump, namely the discussion on echo chambers and filter bubbles, is a topic for digital education. For it is based on a great fallacy which, in its concrete effect, is similar to that of magic digitalism.
The nature of this phenomenon lies in anthropology, that is, in human beings themselves. Filter bubbles are not just an original technical problem but, as such, are mythologically similar to magical digitalism. The Internet, especially in the form of Web 2.0, has long been known for the fact that human "habits" can incredibly be amplified. But they are only amplified, and not regenerated.
To this extent, of course, social media can also strengthen political opinion as a propaganda in an unbelievable way. But the mechanisms of action are known at the latest since Socrates (cf. quotation). In other words, political influence always involves two parties: the influencing and the influenced. Especially the latter were the object of the remarks of Immanuel Kant. People can be influenced all too easily, so that their mind does not have to strive at all. Donald Trump was able to exploit this quite well. The very word of the year 2016, namely, "Post-factual", testifies to this self-inflicted immaturity. Semi- knowledge or post-fictitious illusion generated by the social media represent for us the immature counter-idea that we don't want to (or cannot) be concerned with the meaningful side of knowledge about the problems of the world. "I know that I do not know" was therefore in no way an admission that Socrates knew nothing. It was his declaration of war against semi-knowledge or fictitious knowledge, especially of statesmen and warriors, that is, persons who should know better. Here, too, one can draw clear parallels to today.
"But that the public should enlighten itself is more possible; Yes it is, if one only gives him freedom, almost inevitable" (Kant, a.a.).
Immanuel Kant was obviously very optimistic about the education of the people as a whole. The quotation cannot be interpreted differently. It is certainly true that the freedom of speech and faith is necessary for the purpose of enlightenment. But even here there should be no automatism. Above all, it seems to be necessary for us that there is a belief that people are actually able to leave their imaginary worlds and abandon their technicistic substitute religions through reason and its use. This is perhaps the greatest and most tragic problem of our time: even many critically minded people have too quickly given up to take a position and to argue to the great challenges of mankind. Not in the sense of offering solutions that do not exist, but looking for answers and, above all, knowledge about how a meaningful way into the future might look.
For Immanuel Kant it was clear that only through the use of reason such a future could be opened at all. The denial of more and more people, including those in our circle of acquaintances, to approach the problems through theoretical reflections (which, for example, sometimes require the reading of longer texts and their argument), testify to the lack of faith in a rational humanity. But, no substitute religion or regression to pseudo-knowledge helps against the underlying uncertainty, but knowledge in the sense of "real" and meaningful knowledge.
The Public Use of Reason
„The public use of reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among humans“ (Kant, a.a.).
Kant could almost be described as an apologist or an early prophet of the social media in a positive sense, since transparency and openness, which are also characteristics of social media, were a central feature of enlightenment. The public use of reason (as a reflection on knowledge and establishment of the related meaning) was the decisive factor for him. Not the information accumulated on the Internet or explicit factual knowledge, for example, are decisive for the outcome of people's self-inflicted immaturity, but the active conflict with other opinions and the struggle for more meaningful shaping of human coexistence. Incidentally, also on Facebook and Twitter. Only a knowledge acquired in a reflexive way has a meaning for the knowing and leads for Kant to meaningful, as well as responsible, actions.