WHAT WILL BECOME OF US?
J O H A N N E S
K L E S K E
ARE WE POWERLESS AGAINST DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION?
NOMAD TALKED TO JOHANNES KLESKE, A STRATEGY CONSULTANT ON DIGITAL
TRANSFORMATION AND CO-FOUNDER OF THE BERLIN-BASED CONSULTANCY THIRD WAVE. KLESKE PRESENTS A CONSIDERED APPROACH TO THE
POSSIBILITIES OF DIGITALISATION AND DISCUSSES CURRENT TENDENCIES IN SILLICON VALLEY, OUR POTENTIAL COURSES OF ACTION IN EUROPE AND THE
NEED TO REGAIN INDIVIDUAL SELF-DETERMINISM.
E N D U R I N G
C O M P L E X I T Y
Johannes Kleske, 38, is a strategy consultant and futures researcher. He has spent the last ten years investigating possible futures of work, communications, and cities with a critical perspective. His mission is to give people agency in an increasingly complex world. He is co-CEO (with Igor Schwarzmann) of Berlin-based strategy consultancy Third Wave; founded in 2010, the company advises clients including Deutsche Bahn, Alucobond, BVG, Peta and Postbank. In his talks, Kleske advocates a confident and considered approach
to the digital transformation.
I n t e r v i e w
O N E
Johannes, to kick things off I’d like to take a brief look at your life up to now.
How did you become a digital “thought leader”?
That’s not a term I’m keen on. For me, thought leader conjures up an image of a remote philosopher, sitting alone in his room and devising new theories. I see the world more as a network in which people, shaped by those around them, do many different things. While few of those things are actually new, innovations do emerge from the network. In this context, I see my role as observing movements at the periphery of the network, connecting and communicating them. Like a cross between a scout and a translator.
I have always been driven by the desire to gather information and knowledge, always on the lookout for the next trend. That was how I discovered computers during my teenage years, then the internet and blogging at the turn of the millennium—another huge step in the direction of the network I mentioned above. I still have fond feelings of nostalgia for the time when blogs first appeared. We would write pieces nearly every day and read other people’s articles, comment on them and meet more and more often at conferences and BarCamps (conferences where the agenda is decided by the attendees). It was here that I met my later co-founder of Third Wave, the consultancy company we founded in 2010, which still focuses on discovering, evaluating and communicating innovations.
Evaluating has come to play an increasingly prominent role. For me, it’s no longer about discovering something new and making it available. I also seek to challenge developments, not because I’m against them on principle but because I believe that in many cases we can do better. Much of the debate over technology in Germany is centred on the dichotomy of technological determinism—progress is inevitable and will solve problems somehow or other—versus technological pessimism—progress is bad and ruins everything. However, what’s actually happening is that people are no longer interested in examining the social consequences of technology in greater detail, meaning that no ideas are put forward as to how things can be designed better. I therefore increasingly see my role as offering critical assessments and making more suggestions as to how we can deal with innovations with greater self-awareness and reflection.
T W O
Digitalisation, or rather the unrestricted exploitation of its possibilities, has made us transparent to the providers of this technology. Our actions leave traces, eroding any safe havens for our personal identity. Digitalisation has consumed our lives more than any other technology before it.
When did you become aware that this development was inescapable?
One of the most important strategies in my approach to the digital world is not necessarily to stem the increase in complexity, but rather to learn how to withstand and handle it. Seeking to simplify the complex often leads to false representations and conclusions. This allows digital technologies to better observe and portray certain—certain being the operative word!—behavioural patterns. And without wanting to come to the defence of tech companies or the Secret Service, I would question whether we really have become completely transparent. It’s an issue worth considering when companies and services try to make use of records of our behaviour—be it as recommendations on Amazon or metadata on drone strikes. But whatever form those attempts take, a lot still tends to go wrong. Not just because algorithms are still significantly less smart than the industry would have us believe, but also because as individuals, we are much more complex. We have moods, we live in diverse contextual scenarios which can change from minute to minute. We are often unsure in our own minds, changing our opinion more often than we probably care to admit. In short, we are very far from being mathematically calculable machines.
And it is for precisely this reason that our bodies will remain the definitive shelter for our personal identities, despite all the progress made in neuroscience.
I have much more of a problem with the fact that we are moving in a direction where a digital representation of my behaviour is taken at face value as my actual behaviour, and decisions are taken based on this. “You clicked such-and-such, so you must be left-wing.” “You ordered this material online, so you’re obviously a terrorist bomb-maker!” “Your mobile phone was in the same cellular network as known rebels, so they must know you.”
The problem here is not that the algorithms are as yet unable to offer a deeper representation of human behaviour, but that we believe they can already do it.
However, to return to the original question of when it became clear that this could happen, I would start by referring to the literary genre of cyberpunk in the 1980s. William Gibson and his contemporaries at the time had already outlined these dystopian elements of our connected world. Their stories are centred on huge corporations which, based on their technological advancements, have more or less assumed power enabling them to control and oppress the masses. I have to admit that I only read the novels at a much later date; but this allowed me to recognise the signals they contain, which we now see all around us today.
I just returned from a few days in San Francisco and Menlo Park, where I spoke with a lot of people about current developments in the tech industry. An acquaintance of mine had just attended Foo Camp, a very exclusive event organised by Tim O’Reilly for pioneers and highly influential personalities in the tech industry. He told me how astonished he was to discover, during an introductory phase of the event, that quite literally absolutely everybody there who is working on exciting subjects such as virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, drones and so on is employed by a large corporation. In Germany we still worship at the altar of the startup as a haven of innovation, but things have changed on the West Coast of the USA. Large companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Salesforce and IBM not only have the funds necessary to hoover up all the talent; they have also since embraced agile development methods and other organisational structures seen in startups, thereby overcoming one of their greatest weaknesses: lack of speed. In addition, they have a huge advantage over startups in terms of artificial intelligence (AI) the next big thing, as they call it—because they own huge amounts of data. All this leads to a situation where talent and ideas are increasingly concentrated in large corporations. In turn, their understanding of how to use this power is becoming increasingly sophisticated. We are therefore further down the road towards a cyberpunk future than ever, or, as William Gibson would say: cyberpunk is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.