A Tourist in the Digital World

Ivan Krastev discusses how literature affects our perceptions of history.

Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Studies, an independent NGO in Sofia, Bulgaria, is a political scientist and historian who looks to classic novels to better understand the present and how we might build the future. But as he often warns, sometimes such sources raise more questions than answers. Before his 2012 TEDGlobal talk, I sat down with the Bulgarian born Krastev, to learn more about how he sees our future, based on literature of the past as well as newer forms of writing, such as blogs, affect how we process history.

PP: The Future of Europe survey says that over 60% of Europeans believe that their children will be worse off than they are. How should EU leaders address this pessimism?

IK: Today, Europe is still the best place to live, but it is not a good place to dream. Its crisis is economic, political, and institutional, but it is also a crisis of imagination. At the closing of the last century, Europeans viewed themselves as the winners from the process of globalization. Today, the majority of Europeans view themselves as losers of globalization. ‘Change” is a hated word. Political activism is directed at preserving what we have rather than change. Students demonstrate against increasing the retirement age reform of the educational system. At the moment it seems that the EU has lost “the vision thing” that keeps political projects alive.

PP: For Europeans, how has their perception of the future changed?

IK: I believe a major change happened about 30 years ago. After the collapse of communism, Europeans gave up [on] the future as a project. Earlier, it was seen as the future being “real time” and everything else (including the present), as simply ways to prepare for the future. We’ve started to think about the future the way insurance companies do: by calculating risks.

PP: What do you see as the biggest constraint as countries explore their visions?

IK: The basic problem [I have with] the West’s idea of the world is that we know we have lost a lot of power but we still believe we have the power to frame [the conversation]. And the power to frame means that you come with your own questions and are just interested in other people’s answers [to your own questions]. But often people are interested in totally different questions.

PP: How do you actually understand other people’s internal conversations?

IK: As a historian, you are always facing the basic problem of understanding a person who is not living in the same time as you. The most important thing to understand is, with whom are they arguing? People are always arguing with somebody and with something. And this argument is normally with some of their contemporaries. It’s very important to understand who disagrees with whom.

PP: You often refer to literature in your work. What role does literature play for you as a historian?

IK: I believe that you cannot understand societies without understanding their literature. For example, you’re never going to understand the rise of liberalism if you don’t understand the influence of the psychological novel of the 19th century.

PP: One of your favorite writers is the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago. How has he influenced your thinking?

IK: He’s extremely powerful on visionary and utopian thinking. In his novel, Death with Interruptions, there was a country where people stopped dying. At first the Church got upset: If no one is dying, then no one is resurrecting. Insurance companies went bankrupt. Those taking care of the old and sick created a smuggling system to take them to sick countries where they could die. And, in the best part of the novel, the Prime Minister goes to the King and says: “Your Majesty, if we do not start dying, we do not have a future.”

Changing demographics are changing our future. When someone is going to live for one hundred years, it’s different than thinking you’ll live for 50 years. I’m not sure we’re prepared for this and what we are doing during our lives. The retirement age in 19th-century Germany was four years beyond the life expectancy. Now you’re getting a pension in the middle of your life. It’s a totally different story of how you experience the world. 

PP: With the proliferation of blogs and other sources of information, how do you see the relationship between literature and political movements changing?

IK: People aren’t sharing narratives anymore, they’re sharing more emotions. You can see that one result is the total visualization of communication. Increasingly, people are exchanging images rather than (or in addition to) text.

PP: What are your sources of information?

IK: I’m very conservative. I don’t have a mobile phone. I’m not on Facebook. I follow blogs professionally, but as an observer. I’m much more of a tourist in this digital world. The tourist has some kind of advantage because you’re still surprised by certain things. When you’re born into it like this digital generation, you take everything as natural.

PP: Many people struggle with managing this massive inflow of information. As a “tourist,” how do you navigate this influx?

IK: People these days are totally obsessed with speed. But the real fear they have is that they’re not going to be a part of something. I remember that when I was in my twenties I wanted to be everywhere because one was always afraid of missing something. This fear becomes such a guiding line for many people that at the end of the day they don’t have a feeling of what they are really afraid of missing. This fascination with speed and of being there every second will eventually lead to people asking, for what? And why?

This is why reading a book has one major important advantage: you’re slightly on your own. You can read slower, you can put the book down. You have your time. You’re not looking to see if someone is on Skype, as you can when you’re on the computer.

This is true too with leaders who are fascinated with being networked and plugged-in. At TED, people believe that if you give your business card to somebody, you’re networking. But networking is about being interested in others and making yourself interesting. That takes time. Have you seen that people cannot give time anymore? For example, they’re part of an interesting conversation and they’re going to jump out of it because they’re afraid they’re going to miss another interesting conversation.

Leadership is about defining priorities. Leaders know what is important. So for some part of this over-networked generation, the basic problem is making priorities. And, by the way, I mean making priorities by yourself (because the problem with communications today is that it makes priorities for you).

PP: This is a fascinating discussion. Let’s continue the next time you’re in New York.

IK: It would be a pleasure. Since I don’t have a mobile phone, I have lots of time.

Photography by James Duncan Davidson, courtesy of TED

Priya Parker is the founder of Thrive Labs and can be reached at Priya@ThriveLabs.Co. She speaks regularly on vision and purpose, most recently on the “Fear of Missing Out.” Follow her on Twitter: @PriyaParker.

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