Everybody’s looking at Germany. Jeremy Rifkin

Into the Valley

A recent trip to Silicon Valley included a conversation with one of psychology’s living legends, Albert Bandura. But is old science keeping up with technological change?

Kai Diemann, editor-in-chief of Germany’s biggest newspaper, is setting sail, and he’s taking a leadership circle from the Axel-Springer publishing house with him: they are venturing into Silicon Valley, the mother ship of the start-up industry. Diekmann and his colleagues want to experience and learn how digital industries will change our lives in the coming years. I travelled to California myself in April. The conversations I had with scientists and entrepreneurs highlighted how much our achievements in the field of digital technologies will continue to shape societies.

Albert Bandura welcomes me into his office on Stanford’s campus. A fellow journalist once studied psychology and had provided me with a quick briefing before my visit: Bandura is a scientific legend. He personifies six decades of behavioral research, his studies repeatedly re-shaped the field of psychology. “Half of the articles and books I read were by Bandura,” my colleague had told me after he heard that I would meet with the scientist. But how does one approach a legendary figure like Bandura? How will he connect with the topics that I am interested in discussing: the ways in which the use of digital technologies shapes human behavior, participation in online social networks. Bandura is 86 years old, maybe he doesn’t even use the internet.

I greet him as I enter his office. Bandura is wearing sweat pants, he is turning around on his chair. I assume that he has trouble getting up, for he remains seated behind his table. He smiles, his eyes sparkle behind big horn-rimmed glasses. Hipsters in Berlin would kill for those glasses: they are fitting accessories for today’s mundane avant-garde. Urban legend has it that many hipsters simply wear them with normal glass instead of correctional lenses, just to express a certain lifestyle. I don’t doubt that Bandura has worn the same glasses since the 1960s – he’s the original. We can only guess how many times he’s looked through those glasses at data sets from his many psychological studies.

There’s no computer in Bandura’s office, and the telephone is already past its prime. We begin our conversation by talking about the importance of role models for children. “You know, television suddenly exposed children to many more different roles and role models than they used to know through their immediate social environment.” We are confronted with a growing number of alternative roles to aspire to. “The internet exponentially increases these possibilities. But real social contact will never become obsolete,” Bandura says. “I wrote a paper about that.” He pulls open a big drawer underneath his bookshelf. It contains around hundred folders, all marked with little labels. Four drawers in total, 400 folders, all analog. My hopes vanish that the scientist – nice as he is – would understand my thoughts about religion, behavior, global morality, and the internet. During our conversation, he will open the other drawers as well and hand me several printed sheets of paper. It’s the smell that gets me: the smell of pages that have been pressed against each other for years, that are stuck to each other, locked away in the tomb-like drawer, a crypt of ideas, a cult of ripened and cultivated knowledge. Suddenly, the university appears to me as a bulwark against the speed, connectivity, and digital culture of the contemporary world.

“In the past, religion prescribed what was to be seen as good and evil. Will religion still play that role in the future?” I ask him. Religion, I think, has become replaced by inter-religiosity because of the internet. We have gotten to know other religions. While my forefathers were aware that Lutherans and other religions existed far beyond the borders of their little village, their social life was organized by the teachings of Catholicism. It’s a different world today. Not only because denominational structures have been broken but also because we experience in real time what qualifies as “truth” in other cultural contexts around the world.

The internet has killed the idea of Truth (with a capital T). Absolute truth is impossible in light of the perpetual concert of competing truth claims that arise from human interactions as well as from different religious traditions. Bandura replies: “Religion has always configured social realities for the inhabitants of a concrete geographical space.” I ask: “Do you know Facebook?” “Yes,” he replies. I am surprised and continue: Facebook now has 900 million members. With the registration of their profile, all of them have subscribed to a certain behavioral codex. It has a functionalist element (it implicitly regulates user behavior, for example by discouraging overly confrontational actions) and a substantive element: once you enter the world of Facebook, you step into a digital social space with its own social logic. It’s only possible to “like” something but not to “dislike” a post. Reality is filtered through the Facebook codex.

Bandura remains silent. Then he fixates me through his glasses: “That is indeed a novelty. Facebook users are Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics. People with different backgrounds, moral norms, and social practices. We haven’t yet studied what that might mean for role models and social behavior in the future – but it’s evident that the social network goes far beyond what television accomplished.”

Until today, religions were the driving forces behind the rise of human communities. They provided the foundation for social rules and the justification for what was considered unclean. The cult bound the members of a religion tightly together: religion de-secularized communal life. Now, Facebook fulfills that function. It’s interesting that the company portrays itself as a platform and supplier of technology. It creates the online spaces that its users can fill and use to present themselves. From an economic perspective, the description is correct. Facebook isn’t a new religion and doesn’t aspire to be one. As long as members accept the universal code of conduct (the “terms of use”), Facebook accepts everyone into its community. That’s a major difference from religions, which are often critical of any deviation from prescribed norms. But what binds Facebook users together? Is it their view and perception of the world? The network’s 900 million members have long transcended the horizon of the town or city in which they live. The community isn’t held together by the limitless sky above our heads, but by the network itself. Facebook de-personalizes the monotheistic idea of God. What holds everything together isn’t a God but a network, an energy that brings people together and fuels their interactions.

When I leave the office, I ask Bandura: “Do you not own a computer?” He laughs, now he might understand why he perceived me as slightly unsettled during our conversation: “Don’t worry”, he replies. “Of course I work with a computer.” I take a deep breath and inhale the smell of old notebook paper. “But only at home. It would be a distraction from my scientific work here at the university.” Outside his office, I check Facebook: Albert Bandura doesn’t have a profile. I bet that he’ll register from home.

Newconomy is the new weekly column for the start-up industry. It focuses on the intersection of classical and new economies and of politics and entrepreneurialism. Newconomy is sponsored by Factory, the new start-up hub in Berlin.

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