Photo: Stuart Rankin / Flickr.com

THE END OF POLITICS: CITIES, SOCIAL NETWORKS AND LONELINESS IN THE 21ST CENTURY

Philosopher and musician Alexander Bard and Swedish writer Jan Söderqvist discuss diminishing power of politicians and increasing influence of networks

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An interview with Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist

An interview by Vladyslav Tyminskyi

A conversation on the future of cities and states, diminishing power of politicians and increasing influence of networks, new governmental patterns, the end of ‘fancy architecture’ and loneliness of citizens in the 21st century.

Alexander Bard is a philosopher, lecturer, music producer and television star, based in Stockholm, Sweden. Bard is also well-known for his four pop music bands: ‘Army of Lovers’, ‘Vacuum’, ‘BWO’ and ‘Gravitonas’, as well as for working as a consultant of Swedish and Baltic countries’ governments.

Jan Söderqvist is a Swedish writer, lecturer and consultant, living in Stockholm with his family. He also works as a media theorist, author of publications on cultural and political issues for the Swedish daily newspaper ‘Svenska Dagbladet’, an editor at ‘Axess Magazine’.

Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist are the authors of four bestselling books about the impact of digital technology on modern society: 'The Netocrats’ (2000), ‘The Global Empire’ (2002), ‘The Body Machines’ (2009) and ‘Syntheism: Creating God in The Internet Age’ (2014).
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You are the ideologists of the new ‘network society’ concept, as well as the critics of existing hierarchical political system. In this context, what is your vision of cities and states’ future?

AB: The world is increasingly becoming a competition between cities, whereas the nation state is dying. Moscow is competing with New York, London, Paris, Istanbul, Stockholm, and other places in terms of what kind of lifestyle and basic functions it can provide people with, so they can do the things they want to do. For example, does it have broadband internet connections in every house in the city? That’s the minimum standard you have to meet today, and if you don’t – creative brains will leave and go somewhere else.

That is exactly why Silicon Valley in San Francisco has been attracting people for such a long time. The point is that San Francisco is not a technological phenomenon but a cultural one. It is the open and tolerant culture in Northern California, and these two features created the possibility for Silicon Valley to occur.

Russian culture is very authoritarian; and authoritarian culture is the least attractive place for the new kind of creativity to occur

However, some cities will try to control people and tax them hard or in other ways attempt to prevent this kind of creativity. This is, certainly, a problem that Moscow has. The reason is that it’s located within Russian culture, which is very authoritarian; and authoritarian culture is the least attractive place for this new kind of creativity to occur. So when Russian politicians invested heavily and tried to create a copy of Silicon Valley outside Moscow, it completely failed because the cultural conditions were not there. You cannot create digital creativity by giving orders. That is an entire misunderstanding of how it works.

Thus, all cities around the world are rivaling in the sort of frameworks they are making for people to be creative and social. And these are the two things people want to be able to combine. We believe that participatory culture is a key to how you will organize your life individually in the future. Therefore, it has become one of the basic issues of our new book Syntheism: Creating God in The Internet Age.

JS: This would scare people, but if you let the political power diminish, you will have civil society rising – with lots of creativity, lots of ideas spontaneously generated and communicated. You just have to trust this process.

AB: And again, if you look at a phenomenon like Silicon Valley you’ll see that political power is incredibly weak in Northern California. That was actually one of the keys to the success story: it was not introduced by politicians, it occurred by itself.

How would you define ‘power’ in the contemporary world then?

AB: There are many different centers of micro-​power where the concentration of power that politics once had has diminished. One of the theses in our book The Netocrats is the fact that politicians in the future will act as TV game show players, having lost the real authority and will become just symbols of the genuine power. Thus, the power you have, for example, as a consumer is now often bigger than the power you have when you go to vote – once every four years or something like that. In that sense, the idea that democracy is your right to vote every four years, whereupon politicians obtain all this power, is being diminished. So, power is becoming a much more complex phenomenon than it used to be. 

JS: If you observe the recent Swedish election, you can see this very clearly. It’s becoming a sort of entertainment industry where you have politicians that, basically, have to degrade themselves into a sort of show-​players to stir up some interest, to project power. But this power is very eroded; it is very loose these days. And the threshold to attack power has been lowered.

A view of one of the major expressway interchanges in Bangkok, Thailand. The system sees a traffic of over 1.5 million vehicles per day. A complex elevated expressway network helps bring traffic into and out of the city center, but Bangkok's rapid growth has put a large strain on infrastructure, and traffic jams have plagued the city since the 1990s. (Wikipedia / Photo: Mark Fischer)

A view of one of the major expressway interchanges in Bangkok, Thailand. The system sees a traffic of over 1.5 million vehicles per day. A complex elevated expressway network helps bring traffic into and out of the city center, but Bangkok’s rapid growth has put a large strain on infrastructure, and traffic jams have plagued the city since the 1990s /​Photo: Mark Fischer /​Wikipedia​.org

AB: Today voters are increasingly frustrated that their politicians can’t achieve anything. This is the reason why power has moved away from the politicians and has become highly disperse – it’s everywhere else. You are now connected with your friends all the time; you and your friends can decide together: ‘We aren’t going to consume this, we’d rather consume that ’. And this is where the real power is – in connections. 

And what types of new governmental patterns will dominate in the future?

AB: The problem is that governments increasingly have less and less power; they are losing the influence on a system. Obviously, they are more influential in poorer countries like Burma or India but generally their power in the world is diminishing. Government in itself has become extremely fluid, and its role has, basically, reduced to support the market and its structure. Once the government has created the framework for the market, it becomes increasingly efficient. As a result, you have different competing forces within the market, including technological ones. So a new technology can almost overnight completely kill an old power structure on the market. And as long as these markets are vibrant and full of competition, less and less power goes to the government. Such principles as openness and transparency are becoming the most urgent in this model of interrelationships.

Now I probably have much more in common with you than I have with my next-​door neighbor. So it’s far more stimulating for me to communicate with you than with him

Nonetheless, right now you can also see an extremely high corruption level in Eastern European countries like Ukraine and Bulgaria, for example. Substantially, corruption is the opposite of being a successful digital communicator. Why would somebody stay your friend on Facebook if you are corrupt and you are selling out all the information the person gives you? He will immediately lose all confidence in you. The key for successful creation of social networks is to be absolutely transparent and open, look at the interest of the network before your own interest. This is the exact opposite of corruption. This is exactly why corrupt societies find it so hard to adapt to the Internet world.

JS: On the other hand, post-​communist countries are in a good spot because they have been through dramatic changes. And now their societies can choose one of two ways: to stay extremely conservative and nostalgic, intending to go back, or to embrace change and exploit the fact that they are good at handling it.

If you look at a lot of Western countries like Spain, France or Italy, you’ll easily realize that they are not doing very well: they are mostly lazy, complacent, nothing much going on there. And this is the opposite of the change and momentum that post-​communist countries have. People can just go with it and use it.

In your publications you are relating the emergence of new governance forms with such phenomenon as globalization. Does globalization have limits – in conceptual and spatial senses?

AB: The only limit to the globe is the globe itself. There are no borders to globalization. If you are a globalized person, a global citizen having friends all around the world, then you don’t have any problems at all. It doesn’t make sense to have people appointed to govern your everyday life nowadays. If you want to organize relationships today, they will be managed automatically; you don’t need any mediators there.

At the same time, there is the opposite trend to localize everything and to cut off connections between people. For example, if someone tends to cut off the Internet, then we’re going to have a local net in some place that is isolated from the rest of the world. Definitely, this is a disastrous strategy.

JS: The important point is that now I probably have, much more in common with you than I have with my next-​door neighbor. So it’s far more stimulating for me to communicate with you than with him. And Moscow is only two hours away. You can communicate with anyone, and you don’t even have to move physically or travel to that place. So, whatever kind of community you want to create or whatever kind of project you want to manage – you can do it now in the virtual space. The world is your stage. No limits.

Then why will people live together in the future? What kind of values and meanings will organize their coexistence?

AB: They won’t. For instance, 80% of all people in Stockholm now live on their own. And this is a global trend that is growing. The reason is that today you can take your social life with you to every place on Earth. When you come home to your own apartment where you are living alone and turn on the machines (laptop and other devices), your friends are everywhere. You don’t have to live together with someone else anymore. That’s exactly why the old models that say – ‘this is how to force people to live with each other’ – don’t work.

What changes in the architectural and spatial environments of modern cities can be triggered by the social and cultural transformations you have described?

AB: If I would be an architect today, I wouldn’t design like ‘these are the walls, these are the rooms and these are the things you have to do in these rooms’. Because within ten years buildings created in such a way will be completely sclerotic and useless. Thus, flexibility and transformability are two of the most important principles architects have to deal with in the future.

When you come home and turn on your laptop, your friends are everywhere. You don’t have to live with someone else anymore

For instance, we still have two old types of buildings for living. One of them is a hotel room where you have to pay an amount of money for a bed to sleep, the Internet, and some other temporary functions while staying in this room. On the other side, there is an apartment where you are supposed to live for the rest of your life, paying a monthly fee for it. But now we don’t need these two extremes anymore. Anything that goes in between the hotel room and the apartment will be extremely attractive. Obviously, that will be a building with movable walls and changeable spaces.

Night time infrared photo illustration of Silicon Valley in Northern California done by NASA Space Station’s expedition. Since the 1970s, this place has become a unique symbol of the new digital era. It is home to many of the world's largest technology corporations, as well as thousands of tech startup companies nowadays / Photo: NASA / Flickr.com

Night time infrared photo illustration of Silicon Valley in Northern California done by NASA Space Station’s expedition. Since the 1970s, this place has become a unique symbol of the new digital era. It is home to many of the world’s largest technology corporations, as well as thousands of tech startup companies nowadays /​Photo: NASA /​Flickr​.com

JS: There is a significant fact that the attractions of cities aren’t created by beautiful spaces and fancy architectural forms anymore. The most wonderful European places to visit like Florence or Rome are not the most dynamic ones. Much more important now is what kind of people you can attract and what can they achieve together? As well as what sort of culture people are able to create in some place without any interferences but, probably, with some stimulants?

AB: And if we look at the city’s future, it’s not about central planning anymore. The idea that there is a guy who knows exactly where and how people want to live tomorrow is an extremely stupid one.

The architects’ highest priority now is to create an available infrastructure. You have to transport your body from one point to the next in the most efficient way; that means you need an airport, a train station, and, probably, electric cars around. You can’t have traffic jams like in Moscow; they totally destroy the economy. If you don’t remove these problems your place becomes incredibly unattractive and then the brains move out of it. And if the small number of creative brains leaves, then the whole network of people will go with them. This is what we are increasingly going to see all around the world.

JS: It’s not rare to meet people in Moscow who travel every day three hours to work and three hours back. Those people do that only because they have to. And if they can find an equally attractive employment somewhere else, they will leave. It’s madness to waste six hours a day commuting. And these problems are much more important than creating fancy buildings or funny architecture.