Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg: Holm Friebe welcomes us with coffee into his ‘bijou’ flat, located directly on Answalder Platz’s Park. Upon entering, one immediately sees the towering wall of books in one of the two living rooms. Even glancing at the collection, one immediately reads titles of exciting novels and promising works of non-fiction. But Friebe’s flat isn’t decorated with objects that give away his profession as an author and futurologist. That we discover in conversation.
Almost ten years ago, alongside Sascha Lobo, Friebe published the book ‘Wir nennen es Arbeit’ (We Call it Work). This work of non-fiction became a Bible for all of digital bohemia and appeared at an exciting moment, giving digitalization a further boost. Since then, Friebe has been considered one of Germany’s best known experts in regards to ‘the future of work’ and researches the so-called world of tomorrow with his ‘Zentralen Intelligenz Agentur’ (Central Intelligence Agency). Friebe is also a sought after speaker at conferences which focus on digitalization and the professional world. During our interview, Friebe proves himself a friendly, educated and interesting conversational partner.
How do you think digitalization enables innovation?
Since the seventies, digitalization has accompanied us to establish a basis for innovation. Of course there are always slipstreams which are unexpected – starting for example with SMS and the return of texting culture. Some years ago, we thought we might lose ourselves amongst the solitude of computers. When the internet arrived, we believed that there was a second reality level in which we would lose ourselves, and essentially only interact over the network. But in fact, the social has returned. No one envisioned it in this sort of form. People always get used to yesterday’s ‘new’ and think they will recognize its next direction. Five years ago the web was all about anonymization and avatars – Second Life. No one talks about it anymore today. Everybody surfs the net with his/her real name. Digitalization’s big waves can be recognized, but how each step will individually develop always surprises.
So, digitalization doesn’t progress as quickly as we think?
Naturally, we are spellbound by digitalization and believe that the pace of change has reached an inconceivable pace. We live in a moment in which everything constantly overturns. At the same time, all developments are relatively limited to computers and digitalization. The economist, meanwhile, asks himself: will we ever again invent something as useful as the toilet? The real background here is a debate between economists. There are no basic innovations like modern sanitary facilities, radio, telephone or development within cancer research. Where are these innovations? Robert Solow already formulated a paradox of the productivity of IT-technology twenty years ago. He said, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” This may come in the future, with industry 4.0: Big Data, Artificial Intelligence. But we are still at the beginning and for now it is unclear where the sweet spots are, where the real potential will unfold.
In your opinion, where do the opportunities in development lie?
The nature of innovation changes. We no longer have lonesome geniuses – like Albert Einstein – who have divine inspiration. This is shown by how many people write scientific works together or apply for a patent. The trend is heading towards collaborative innovation. Digitalization offers possibilities for people from all sorts of locations who have the same interests and ideas to interconnect creatively. Herein lies the true and strong impact of digitalization within innovation. There are forms of remote-collaboration which still can be intense and fruitful. I witness this for myself at our company, Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur. Our work consists of skype-chats and diverse cloud-based documents which we write together. These are new forms of collaboration which require computers in order to come together.
What kinds of effects does digitalization have on the economy and society?
Digitalization and especially the internet changed the industrial age and many other things that previously required just a mid-sized company. Now they are manageable with a laptop. Organizations of distribution channels, technical programs, knowledge – all these things wander into our computers these days. Through this, the playing field evens out and individuals are actually able to compete with companies. That is the main, emancipatory effect of digitalization on society. Capital is not necessarily needed, but skills are required to manage devices and to eventually pull them together so that a profession with income emerges.
Is there then any capital created for the economy and society?
Everything that humans value and are willing to pay for creates capital. Many virtual offers that are brought to us enable us to help ourselves. This is why digitalization and the internet are considered such big catalysts for the progress and increased individualization of subcultures. More and more, our society is organizing itself into niches in which people feel more comfortable; they no longer fit into grids which previously would have been on sale as a kind of identity, offered within the industrial age. This has a hugely emancipatory effect, even though there is the concern of everything falling apart and people lacking liabilities.
Can we lose ourselves within this digitalized world?
We certainly can, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In the end, we don’t miss that much if we don’t participate in every update-step. Technology-wise, I am up-to-date three years ago and I do just fine. We can’t overestimate this monstrosity, as there are many fields that are not touched. David Edgerton formulated it perfectly with Shock of the Old: there is much more potential within successful and seemingly-matured technologies, than behind most cloudy promises that come from high-tech laboratories.
Is society even ready for a digitalized world?
I think this is the very trap we fall in over and over again. We overestimate the temporary impact of new technologies and the long-term impact is underestimated. This is the classic hype-circle-curve. At the beginning everybody is excited and there is a revolution. Then comes the peak of expectations and then it rustles deep into the valley of disillusionment. But in the background there continues a subtle development, in progress and which has substance. It is much slower than medial expectation.
Which fields, in your opinion, will have a long-term impact?
One can look at the current hype-cycle. Currently at the peak of all expectations stand Big Data, Weareables and 3D Printing. Exactly those things that are heavily discussed at the moment. Many of them will establish themselves in the long run, but in between, there will be one or another bitter disappointments. And there will be surprises. I have engaged in trend research for the past 15 years and have learned to have a certain humility in regards to the future. I have occupied myself with many “expert prognoses” and realized how bad we are at getting it right. Experts suffer under overconfidence. They live inside a filter bubble in which they constantly get reassured of the importance their particular topic – for instance social media marketing – carries for the future. This is why they tend to overestimate.
The lowest scoring, by the way, are the prognoses of experts who are most frequently questioned about the future in media. Things turn out differently than expected, which is why I wouldn’t lean myself too far out the window with any sort of prognosis.
In your book, Die Stein-Strategie (The Stone Strategy), you preach to keep calm and not immediately believe the hype. The book carries the subtitle Von der Kunst, nicht zu handeln (The Art of Doing Nothing)? Is it meant ironically or how did your opinion of ‘not acting’ emerge?
We live in a climate of activism, paranoia and hyperactivity. Everybody has the feeling that we need to chase the hype. If not, people feel they will be swept off the market. Of course, there are examples of people who missed the trend, like Kodak. But there are counter examples where companies have acted too quickly. Since the nineties, Lego has built small blocks which have fed our fantasy and imagination. Then, they began to distribute computer games and slipped into the red. Again today they have reflected on their roots and continue once more to imbue their pieces with history. The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. Sometimes it makes more sense to wait. This is not a spectacular message, but one that must all the more be pointed out. It is often an overlooked option to just not do anything and let things come quietly.
But companies are afraid of precisely this. How can you make the stone-strategy appeal to them?
Andy Grove of Intel once offered the slogan, ‘Only the paranoids survive.’ This might be true when it comes to a chip manufacturer or other companies within the center of digitalization. But there are many industries that are not threatened by disruptive change. For example, the watchmaking industry still prospers today. Even though Wearables exist and young people only stares at their smartphones. Perhaps we should, as Umair Haque proposes, detach ourselves from the term “innovation” and instead say “awesomes.” Products should not only interest us because they are new, but because they are awesome. Another example is Steve Jobs. Many think he was solely a visionary who brought us products we didn’t know we needed. When he came back to Apple in 2008 and had managed the turnaround, he was asked about his strategy. Apple still was in an uncomfortable niche within the PC-market, as computers were only bought by creatives. But Jobs didn’t speak of growth and market expansion, he simply instructed “We wait for the next big thing.” An absolute humility in regards to future. He said, at the moment we can’t do anything but wait. The next big thing was the mp3 player and the iPod opened all sorts of doors for Apple. In that moment, however, it wasn’t at all even fathomed.
Is your book then a counter thesis, as digitalization encourages quick action and activism? And how important is digitalization within your job?
Digitalization has played a big role in my job. The founding of Zentralen Intelligenz Agentur, which happened 12 years ago, would not have been possible without this interface to technology. Ever since I began, I have worked by being digitally connected to people from all over the world. The present is in many points much more ponderous than one thinks. Things change, but not all the time. I cannot offer anything else except a humble attitude towards the future, while critically putting the own vanity of the present to the test. My thesis is a downer, yet it also contains an innovation when saying that things don’t develop as dynamically as we think. Perhaps we don’t really live in such an exciting time.
Many say that right now is the most exciting time we have ever experienced, that we have never had so many possibilities…
We think we live in a time of unprecedented change. But this is objective and only legible by a few indicators. It is a collective hallucination, operated by change-managers. They profit by people believing that no stone rests on another and whoever is last will be bitten by dogs. You need to let out air and not allow yourself to be driven crazy by the ideology of change. No one is forced to participate. Rather, one should look if there is – or perhaps is not – something for him or her here.
Do you correlate this to digitalization? Do not all companies need to operate with social media in order to stay competitive, nowadays?
Digitalization is a trend that has concerned us for the past 40 years and constantly shows new facets. But we must access it on deeper levels and ask ourselves whether we should follow a trend or just ignore it. Let’s take a look at QR-Codes. I don’t know anyone who uses them. For a long time everything had to be covered with these codes. Companies wanted to show their progressiveness by using them. But in the end, their hands were left empty. Another example: I participated in a conference whereby people had to present their questions for the panel via an iPad rather than directly addressing the lecturers via microphone. It just complicated the entire process.
So humanity is not ready yet for digitalization?
Humanity doesn’t want to change per se. When the BBC asked what the biggest innovation people could remember was, the bike won. Internet landed in 7th place. This imperative ‘to move with time’ is a great wet dream of engineers, managers and start-ups. They bemoan society, they say it is too slow. Society decides how fast it wants to adapt to innovation. No one is in the position to express this imperative. Who gives us the feeling of constantly needing to change in order to not fall behind?
Is this not a contradiction: you as a digital person preaching waiting? You came to this conclusion as a digital man and decided to write down your epiphany in a book?
It is a misunderstanding that has stuck with me since 2006, since the book “Let’s call it work“. We were identified as good-humored, progressive avant-gardists, as the first brigade for market liberalization that constantly holds the flag towards the wind, keeping up with time. Back then we already would say: trust your ideas, don’t be opportunistic and do follow your goals. I would constantly get irritated by this idea constantly being brought to my attention. We actually meant the opposite. What can we learn from stones? They don’t constantly reinvent themselves as butterflies or flowers. Nonetheless, stones constantly move around in riverbeds. People are like stones. They change slowly and continuously. It is a naive notion that one can reinvent him- or herself from day to another. It is blind activism, and very dangerous.
What does your home furnishing reflect?
My apartment is quite packed. At the beginning I had slight problems with room division because the three rooms are equally big. The classic arrangement does not work here. I decided for a 70s room and an 80s room. It has a chrome-look that rather is techno-like. The 70s room is more comfortable and fluffier. I have realized the importance of a central table within the flat. It doesn’t only function as an eating table, but as well as a work and meeting table. I basically always sit at this table.
What is the difference between your working space in Kreuzberg and the one at home?
Most important is the road in between the two. I like to go from the saturated Prenzlauer Berg into the heart of multicultural Kreuzberg. My work modus also alternates between those two places. As Zentrale Intelligent Agentur is a virtual company, we never placed importance on physical representation. The only reason to go to the office is to get sidetracked. I don’t go there to work with the utmost concentration, but to be disturbed by people who provoke new thoughts. At home I concentrate fully on work. I go to the office when I start feeling claustrophobic at home.
You are probably one of those people who constantly works. How do you deal with that?
I think being intertwined between work and free time is good. The fright of blurring borders between work and life is for people who consider work a fixed sum of suffering, a sum taken from their waking lifetime. For them, actual life takes place after work during ‘quality time.’ There is a strong penetration of topics and as well as people who work with you professionally and become friends. This strict separation never made sense to me, which is why it doesn’t exist for me.
Tell us a bit about the art in your apartment.
For years I bought and collected art. This big painting is by Bruno Hoffmann, a young artist from Vienna. Many pieces have a connection to my subjects. For instance consumption: the big painting behind the chair is by Larissa Fassler from September Galerie. It is here that I have my working space, meaning the former space of the gallery on the 5th floor of the building in Adalberstraße, within the heart of Kreuzberg. I consider Larissa exciting because she creates some sort of psychogeography in more ‘problematic’ areas like Kotti. She uses snippets and codes from these places to create a sort of mind-map.
What is your favorite object?
I like objects that don’t immediately work as an art piece. When it exists on the border of commerce and design, I like it. For example, Superflex, which tries to make an open source beer that can be re-brewed by everyone and anyone. Many of my pieces are connected to topics which surround me. There is also this broken wine bottle: my parents were at an Andy Warhol exhibition in 1981, back when he was not really famous. Warhol signed a bottle of wine at the opening. The inevitable happened: one evening a friend juggled with it and it fell on the floor. Now I own broken fragments of glass signed by Andy Warhol.
Our conversation with Holm Friebe is part of a collaboration with Deutsche Bank that engages with topics concerning innovation in the digital age. Holm Friebe will expand on these themes at the re:publica 2014 conference in Berlin from the 6th to the 8th of May.
Photography: Anna Rose
Text: David Torcasso