Full circle

It’s been a few years since I last was here. Then it was December and it was last century. Now I return in search of shade and without a plan. 

Now I wonder if I have the will to invent my dreams. 


Unlike the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, I am not alarmed at Europe’s state of political affairs. Is it a sad state of affairs? Or is this the natural dynamical process of political life? Push here, pull there, exaggerate here, exaggerate there, and at the end of the day, what you want is to steady the boat in the rough seas of human misery, exuberance, greed, and goodwill. 

I also do not see the that the latest 25 May super-sunday European parliament elections offers much to brag about in terms of democracy. While the folks did not quite all stay home, a majority did just that. Whatever the result may mean or whatever its consequences are, it is a minority result (43.1%), and there is no amount of justification that changes that fact. On the bright side, more and more Europeans are realising that voting on European matters is relevant to their lives and livelihoods.  

However, a parliament elected by a minority does pose more problems than it solves, especially when a minority of those elected are from the extreme right, and stand against anything that is either called democracy, human rights, liberalism or socialism. In a world that sees itself challenged with problems of global dimensions – climate change, violation of human rights, violations of international law, inequality, etc. – a vociferous minority that is xenophobic, protectionist, intolerant and against the very institution to which they have been elected is indeed a challenge that has the nature of a malignant disease. But, this is the state of affairs in Europe right now. These are interesting times.

In my view, a federalist Europe is the future. A united Europe that works together (this includes arguing and challenging each other in parliamentary debates), that is committed to peace and wellbeing of its citizens and its global neighbours, is what we need. We do not need a factious Europe where each little patch of land is screaming bloody murder against any little triviality that affects their poor understanding of sovereignty. 

It could be that I have imbibed heavily from the free trade Kool Aid bowl, but while not a goal in itself, just another tool, an open market offers many more advantages than any protectionist approach. We need an open European market in goods and services, we need the freedom of movement of persons and capital, and we need to think about where the real threats are. But are we working in this direction anywhere else other than in academia?

Still, Habermas may have a point. The point being that the political power elite is reluctant to think on behalf of us all, and are much too concerned with keeping face, or holding on to power, or just reluctant to leave their comfort zone. That is, in his words and translating liberally, the politicians in office are not willing to leave their daily power routines, and to face what is indeed a new situation that requires new solutions. Do we need a new breed of politicians?

Indeed, the choice for the new President of the European Commission is an important one, and it should be legitimised by respecting the Lisbon Treaty. Here there is much at stake, but I also welcome the very debate that is raging now about the candidates for this post which then this newly elected European parliament will have to vote on. 

While the results of this 2014 European election have only surprised by their reality, the result as such does not surprise many. The Europeans are an heterogenous collection of people with many different languages, cultures and traditions, and the future is as much ours as it has ever been. However between financial crisis, and a shifting equilibrium in economic factors, many are unsatisfied. The Greeks are suffering, and the Portuguese complain, and the Irish have had their troubles, and the English are rebelling. Somehow they all forget that is it not the European institutions that make them suffer, but rather it has been in the hands of their own politicians that their economies have faltered. Sometimes I do wonder if the EU is so close to Utopia that the average citizen cannot possibly relate to it. Or is it that its institutions are so complex and beyond the comprehension of the voters? 

I cannot figure this out either. I live in Switzerland, and I am an European in spite of my nationality. That is, that my own compatriots here have decided to not cooperate with the EU, or not honour the existing agreements, is one more indication that the Swiss are indeed Europeans through and through. The problem in my view is not the EU or its institutions, and it is not that I would be as naive as to believe that all possible optimisations have been made within the EU institutions, but I have spent a fair amount of time studying the very directives and communications that these institutions issue, and it is not Utopia that I find, but practical and necessary measures that allow this continent to function. It is also not that there are no mistakes that have been made or that will be made in the future. Still, the prevailing culture, the emerging European culture is one of dialogue and transparency. Dialogue and transparency are necessary ingredients in democracy. 

So, why is it that the Swiss are such exemplary Europeans? It could be because the Swiss, like the Greeks or the Dutch are all having their own share of difficulty adapting to a world that is increasingly more complex and interdependent. When challenged with new problems, it is easy to regress to past solutions, and to forget that the past solutions were for other problems, not for the present problems. But then, it could also be that I am an hopeless poet, and that I am misguided in thinking that critical thought, frank debate, and commitment to a shared future are all unrealistic. 

I want to live in an Europe that thinks forward with full knowledge of its past history, successes and failures. I think that we need to evolve our thinking, and our politics need to reflect that evolution. The future, if the planet is to have a mid-term future, lies in joining our efforts, not in squabbling about a non-existing sovereignty, or a chimeric neutrality. That said, I believe that we need the tools and legitimisation of self-determination. I am not alarmed about the chaotic state of affairs in which Europe finds itself, I think we can take this crisis, bang our heads together, and come up with solutions that move us towards what matters. 

But do we know what matters?

Quantum Solace or Classical Misery?

I wrote a few paragraphs for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Ich. Heute. 10 vor 8. blog. Given a wide choice of technology relevant topics close to my heart… the choice was difficult. I had to start somewhere. The German version is Ach, analog, digital – Quanten! Blitzkurs für alle Feinde des Digitalen und Technologieverächter.

Battlefields for Words: Is the digital displacing the analogue?

I start the year fighting. I not only contend, but assert that we are fighting all the wrong battles and ignoring the only war worth fighting. I am frankly tired of the persistent residuals of absurd reductionism and ubiquitous oversimplification. We are fighting a technology war, when we should be fighting for dignity. Digital versus analogue is just one of the many battlefields. This war is senseless, the battles are meaningless. Technology is not the enemy. What is technology? What is the enemy? 

My take is that the pervasiveness of technology and the irrelevance of the distinction between digital and analogue have eluded the awareness of many. Be it books, cooking stoves, automobiles, or pharmaceuticals, we live in a world where production cannot divorce itself from its technologies. Still, many think that technology is evil, and others blame all our economic and social woes on digital technology. But let’s think again. 

Technology is the application of knowledge for practical purposes. Technology is alternatively taken for granted, left unexamined, instrumentalised, or simply despised. We assimilate technology very fast. We have forgotten how pervasive technology is. There is only one consequent way to renounce technology, and that is to not ever be born. We have no control on that one. We are doomed or blessed to live with technology. This is our nature. 

We have not thought enough about evolution and the role that technology plays in it. In our compulsive search for sense, we unwittingly have created the very tools for our evolution. But what are these tools? When humanoids predating homo sapiens discovered how to modify the surface of a cave’s rock so as to express, supposedly what was experienced, a technology was invented. Knowledge was applied for a practical purpose.  Today people write blogs to express their passions for cars, cooking, philosophy, slapstick, frugality, fashion and a myriad sundry of assorted topics that make me dizzy, have no interest in, or cannot comprehend. We are still in the business of expressing and sharing. The tools have changed. 

It is starting to dawn on you that perhaps we take in technology like the air we breathe. But like the air we breathe, has technology become polluted with the digital? A reflection on the very distinction between analogue and digital devices, between analogue computing and digital computing, tells you that all is as pristine as ever. Our beloved technology has not become adulterated with the digital. Analogue is about the use of continuous variables. For instance, an Ampère meter to measure current, or thermometer to measure temperature, would have been representative of such devices before the widespread use of digital circuits and computers. Today these analogue devices can be visited in science and technology museums. Other than the old fashioned mercury or alcohol thermometer that you may have laying around the house, these too have gone digital. But the world of analogue variables such as temperature, current, voltage, velocity and pressure to which we relate to on a daily basis, is set by classical mechanics. Classical mechanics is a theory that functions as a model to think about the physical world. While as a model it is correct, it is far from being able to describe the physical world completely. It gives us a tool to work through a set of limited problems. We would not have been able to put a man on the moon, or built a smartphone if we had only classical mechanics to rely on; the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics were also needed. Stated more bluntly, analogue technology represents the best knowledge of the nineteenth century. 

To add insult to injury in keeping things analogue and digital straight, computers come also in three different flavours: classical analogue; classical digital , and quantum. Alan Turing used a classical analogue computer to break the German Enigma code. You and I use classical digital computers in our everyday lives to make a simple phone call. Quantum computers have seen the market in 2011 (D-Wave), and work towards their realization has resulted in the 2012 Nobel Prizes presented to David J Wineland and Serge Haroche. Last year Google launched the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with NASA. However given that  present quantum computers require operating temperatures lower than freezing hell, the pocket version is still not available.

Thus, the pocket variety of computer that we can buy today is the classical digital computer. It deals with discrete quantities – bits are discrete – and these computers deal with continuous quantities by discretizing them (i.e. digital thermometers). It is difficult to think of any computers that do not run on electricity (the abacus is a good example of a mechanical computational device, but isn’t a computer). Now, is electricity analogue or digital? Well, it is both. First electric current is produced by electrons flowing through a conducting medium (usually copper). Electricity is produced by transforming some other form of energy. Remember? We burn fossil fuels or have wind turbines spinning to produce electricity. Surely, somewhere between elementary school and the shopping mall you have learned that electrons themselves are discrete little buggers that can only be fathomed within the world described in the language of quantum mechanics. In this bugger quantum world, electrons are both particle and wave, both discrete and continuous. And there we have it , quantum computing can be both analogue and digital. The take home lesson is that digital and analogue can not be separated. These are not two different worlds, it is one physical reality that can be shaped using different methods, and expressed in the language of different theoretical premises. Our machines employ a plethora of methods and processes, deeply integrated, analogue and digital. It is not simple. 

We are living in a fantasy world of ill suited theories and seek the quick fixes for our ailments armed with nothing but our gullibility that there is one simple single fix for all that ails us. Ailing business will not assure their survival by killing competing emergent technologies or business models (the devils of the digital), but by assimilating and looking at where the real enemy is. What is that real enemy?

Our enemy is ourselves. We are neglecting our dignity. We are not thinking.