Which jobs are going to fade away? What should our children learn? What does the movie “Matrix” have to do with our lives even today? Telekom CEO Tim Höttges addressed these and other questions in a detailed interview with the German daily “Handelsblatt”. In doing so, he left no doubt that he considers the chances of digitization to be much bigger than the risks.
Mr. Höttges, there are many movies that have dealt with the future of men and machines. Which one did you like in particular?
We find that surprising, because like most Hollywood fictions, “Matrix” gives a very dark forecast: Computers only keep us on as energy suppliers and make us believe in a world that actually does not exist.
Höttges: “Matrix” is a movie full of allusions to old myths and religions. That is why it moves us on many levels. It is also a movie about the theory of “constructivism”. Probably we’re all constructing our reality already, and sometimes it’s being constructed for us. Looked at in this way, we’re already living in a matrix, a bubble, a cocoon. We believe on the one hand that we’re living highly individual, self-determined lives. On the other hand, we’re constantly being manipulated and misled. The Internet suggests freedom and adventure to us, but it has long since been expressly tailored to me and the offerings derived from my earlier decisions.
What makes you say that?
Höttges: Just have a look at the adverts that confront you every day on the Internet: the products offered to you, the answers to your search inquiries. All increasingly tailor-made. By the way: Do you know the optimal search result?
We would say: As customers, we want variety.
Höttges: If it’s a question of attitudes: yes. But the optimal result is: 1. In the end, all we want is a direct answer to a direct question. As customers, we want to be understood. With Google today, there are already four or five advertising spaces... and then on page one there are only a handful of actual hits.
So do you think the Matrix is not really threatening, just in need of improvement?
Höttges: The movie is not just a vision, it’s an allegory as well. But of course it also anticipated 17 years ago how the real and the virtual world can merge. That’s what we’re experiencing now. Technology is always ambivalent. Throughout history, mankind has learned to come to terms with it – well before the splitting of the atom. And we’ll come to terms with digitization as well. It’s not intrinsically evil. On the contrary, it’s usually very useful.
Technology has always been misused too.
Höttges: Yes, by mankind. But it has always brought progress as well. They say that the next generation can already expect to live for a lot longer than 100 years. The media theorist Marshall McLuhan said that technology was the extension of human beings.
McLuhan also coined the phrase: “We shape our tools, and then the tools shape us.”
Höttges: We’re not the playthings of digitization, we are whatever we want to be. McLuhan said: Whenever humanity meets with limits to its abilities, it sort of amputates the body part that can’t cope and extends it through technology. The wheel as an improvement on legs, printing as an extension of hands, etc. This “amputation” leads at first to a state of shock, numbness, and fear. People reject new technology. This is followed by a phase when we come to terms with things. Eventually we start to take advantage of the new, better technology.
Then the Internet is ...
Höttges: ... no more than the extension of the central nervous system and the brain that we expand hugely through the new opportunities. That’s why, for example, I don’t rate the theory that social networks cause our communication to be impoverished. They do the exact opposite.
You’re an optimist, but many people look on the near future with the fear that you’ve just described, and they wonder: What will happen to my job, my industry, my life?
Höttges: I completely understand that. But fear and pessimism don’t take us forward. Digitization will happen, whether we like it or not. And in retrospect, many of our fears seem a bit funny to us. For example, we’re always being warned against self-driving automobiles. It will take much less time than you think for them to be a standard feature of our everyday lives. Like a trip by rail in the 19th century. At the beginning this was seen as a danger to life and limb.
In the “Matrix” movie, evil knows everything and controls everything. Today is this role played by the four big US companies, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, who are assumed to want to divide up the world among themselves?
Höttges: Your question itself implies a very European-style ethic ...
... But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Höttges: Not at all. I’m a convinced European! But we Europeans often assume, as Thomas Hobbes says, that one human being is like a wolf toward other human beings – homo homini lupus. This negative picture of humanity is deep-rooted with us. And that’s why we always demand control and regulation everywhere. Possible abuses have to be nipped in the bud right away. I don’t dispute that Hobbes’s theory is based on truth. And the degree of hatred, horror, and perversion floating about the Internet certainly shows us the downsides of today. But conversely, the Americans in general and Silicon Valley in particular have their own view, which is equally worthy of discussion: they speak of homo ludens ...
... mankind at play ...
Höttges: ... trying out everything and seeing the meaning of life not in earning money, but in discovering and improving the world as if in a game.
Do you really believe that the big online giants are interested in anything apart from money and market share?
Höttges: Rob Nail from Singularity University has said: Don’t start any digital project unless you’re sure that it will enable you to positively influence at least a billion people.
Höttges: No, that’s what people claim in the Valley, and that also includes those young entrepreneurs who go on to fail. But at least it isn't just a question of money. It’s also about the sometimes naive belief that you can make the world a better place. That’s surely something good, isn’t it?
... And yet it actually seems very naive to us when we consider the brutality employed by many start-ups and even big companies.
Höttges: A great many young people in the Valley reached a position at a very early age where money no longer played a part in their lives. They very quickly sold off a company at a price that guarantees they can live the rest of their lives in the lap of luxury. But they still go on working – on ever new projects. That's what gives their lives meaning.
Doesn’t the accumulation of power in the hands of the founders of Facebook and Google cause you any worries at all?
Höttges: Of course I’m worried. But let’s take a look at the facts: Amazon has revenues of more than 220,000 euros – every minute. The current market capitalization of the “Big Four” is around 1.6 trillion euros. The 30 companies in the German share index, the Dax, all together only amount to about 1,000 billion. Google on its own is worth 460 billion – that’s as much as all the American media companies taken together ... and they include their own giants like Viacom, Comcast, CBS, etc. Amazon is worth more than all the big trading concerns from Walmart to Aldi. Apple makes bigger profits than the revenue of the entire luxury industry.
What are you implying?
Höttges: Do you think that a new, independent business model can still emerge in such an environment? Whatever promises success elsewhere just gets bought up. The question is: What does that mean for free competition?
On the one hand, you celebrate the Internet giants, on the other you criticize their near-monopolies. How does all that make sense?
Höttges: Today two worlds and philosophies are colliding with one another at full speed. Unfortunately the result is that we impose restrictions on ourselves here in Europe in terms of how we open up and develop technology.
Could you give an example, please?
Höttges: I think it’s wrong to handle Uber, the taxi service, so restrictively here in Germany, because I see the enormous customer successes that the company has achieved by now in the U.S.
The victims are the badly-paid Uber drivers with their precarious jobs ...
Höttges: ... which should be called into question critically. But I cannot domesticate business ideas by first of all banning them.
You are clearly on the side of Silicon Valley...
Höttges: ... when it’s about creating open general conditions for innovations: yes. That’s what we need here in Europe and for Europe. So I’m on the side of innovative companies, wherever they are.
The belief in the Valley is: Whatever can be done will be done.
Höttges: I’m not saying that I’ll sign up to everything that happens in the Valley.
What won’t you sign up to?
Höttges: If you speak with people in the Valley, you could conclude that at the end of the day, everything is just a problem of information availability and transparency. And so gigantic masses of data are being collected today to allow conclusions to be drawn. The fact that this data belongs to individuals is completely blanked out. While we are already afraid of the “big” in “big data”, other companies believe this is the basis of their business.
For us, a lot of what is published on Facebook fits the description of incitement. In the U.S., this sort of thing is protected by the right to free expression. Are we Europeans not getting uptight about this?
Höttges: The barrage of hatred disturbs me as much as it does you. Just now we are experiencing the poisoning of public debate. And it can’t go on the way it’s going at the moment. I’m very much in favor of defining our own European way for the Internet and then making sure that the necessary law for companies operating globally online is implemented on a regional basis. That applies on several levels. It’s also absurd that Facebook gets permission from Europe to take over WhatsApp in less than a month. Yet we take one and a half years to be allowed to take over a mobile communications carrier anywhere in Europe, and that is often just the start of the legal hassle.
So you’re against the WhatsApp deal?
Höttges: No, it's not. I’m for equal conditions.
If a German Minister of Justice switches Facebook off, would he have your support?
Höttges: Of course not. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are great achievements of modern democracy. And if you're disturbed by a saloon bar debate, you don’t close down the entire pub. I can imagine a whole host of other ways to cope with the hatred without ruining the resonance space in which it is expressed. We have to argue and discuss it in public – just as we’re doing at the moment. But I also have great respect for Apple boss Tim Cook because he didn’t provide the program codes of his iPhones to the investigating authorities, even though in that case it involved the pursuit of terrorists.
Major companies like that only discuss with governments if the politicians endanger their business model. This is dressed up with a quasi-religious spirit ...
Höttges: ... that I don’t wish to dispute. Dave Eggers described this totalitarianism wonderfully in his novel “The Circle”. The total transparency turns all the past into the present at the same time. Anything like “social rehabilitation” becomes completely impossible. And the sheer size of the companies that we’re discussing here is something to worry about.
Facebook now has 1.6 billion users... and is the largest state in the world. Why does this company need the governments of China and the United States, let alone Germany?
Höttges: I think I can see where you’re going.
It suggests a certain antipathy of such Internet entrepreneurs against actual politics. The US investor Peter Thiel once summed it up: “I believe that freedom is no longer compatible with democracy.”
Höttges: I would not claim that any company in the Valley is dreaming of taking over the world politically. But what I often hear there is in fact the criticism: Laws only protect the status quo, the establishment. Thus they are quite deliberately provoking a degree of civil disobedience in order to create new conditions for their evolutionary technological efforts. Their design thinking just means always asking for the customer’s problem in an absolutely uncompromising way.
That’s what a company like Deutsche Telekom does as well.
Höttges: But we’re dragging a quite different load of ballast behind us, in terms of general conditions, laws, and internal priorities.