Professor Bauer, it’s said that our world is more diverse and individual than ever before. You claim this is a fallacy. Why do you say that?
It’s quite obvious that diversity is decreasing rather than increasing in many areas. Species are dying out, natural spaces and landscapes are being lost, languages and dialects are disappearing. This impoverishment is also evident at the societal level. In religion, art and politics, diversity is decreasing, moderate positions and ambiguities are less tolerated and there is a great desire for absolute truths: black or white, right or wrong. Take food as an example. Some come down on the side of vegan food from organic farms, while others stuff themselves full of highly processed convenience foods. Everything between these two extremes, a good lunch that you simply enjoy, is progressively disappearing. Nowadays, dramatic contrasts suggest a high degree of diversity. De facto, however, this is just pseudo-diversity.
Supermarket shelves with countless types of ketchup, cornflakes and chips seem to indicate the opposite. To what extent is this pseudo-diversity?
Pseudo-diversity reduces people to their role as consumers—and reduces everything else to consumer goods. On the path to becoming a consumer good, true diversity is lost. To name just one example: of the around twenty-thousand varieties of apples around the world, there are only five or six you can find in the supermarket. Namely, those that are the easiest to mass produce and transport. But this reduction doesn’t just affect traditional goods and commodities. Even big social questions—gender equality, the struggles against racism and discrimination to name just a few—are simply being consumed into lifestyles.
Other academics view this as a sign of increasing social diversity. Sociologist Andreas Reckwitz speaks of a society of singularities, where everyone is doing their own thing.
I don’t see any contradiction there. It’s true that everyone is doing their thing these days. I can mix and match my favorite TV shows, do a wide variety of different exercises in the gym depending on my mood and buy customized products. In the end, though, everyone still watches TV or has their own fitness regime. The programs and series all follow the same basic patterns. And exercise is exercise. Everyone is doing the same thing, just not together.
And the driver behind these developments is supposedly capitalism?
Yes, exactly. Basically, human nature encompasses both solidarity and egotism. Religion has kept these two poles in balance over millennia. Over the past several centuries, however, capitalism has spoken only to people’s egotistical, competition-oriented side in order to increase their willingness to work hard and to generate ever-new consumer needs. The modern person no longer looks within to arrive at deeper insights, but rather to recognize a desire for consumption. So we don’t live particularly diverse lives at all these days, but very standardized ones instead.
Weren’t people much more constrained to certain behaviors and lifestyles a few centuries ago?
Naturally there were always constraints and fixed framework conditions that had to be adhered to. But our image of what was normal “in the past” is very strongly shaped by things that only came into being in the nineteenth century, meaning with industrialization. Before that, peoples’ everyday lives were much less standardized than they are today. One example is sleep. That it’s normal today to sleep seven to eight hours at night in one go is a result of industrialization. All of a sudden, people needed to adapt to a machine cycle, to work at fixed times and then sleep. Before that, people usually slept three to four hours, got back up out of bed, did a few things, maybe visited some friends or relatives, and then went back to sleep. And they did it in their own individual rhythm. This kind of diversity no longer exists in our society. Today, life is only allowed to be as diverse as is efficient.
“The hipster in Berlin looks like the one in Cape Town, the punk in New York like the one in Warsaw.”
Well, unambiguity and efficiency do have their advantages.
Absolutely. And there are areas where I very much appreciate them. When I board an airplane, I definitely want the pilot to very clearly know which button in the cockpit does what. In the same way, it makes a lot of sense that technology is tested to very clear and comprehensible standards. But unambiguity is only for machines. For people, striving for unambiguity and efficiency means that they reduce their life goals to what can be quantified. The truly important things in life—love, friendship, compassion, beauty, joy, suffering—are ambiguous. Every person you love can also annoy you sometimes. If you always expect unambiguity, you’re only making life difficult for yourself. This type of lifestyle cannot be sustained over the long run because unambiguity leads to an inner and outer emptiness. It eats us up, makes us into machine people. And it’s eating up our planet.
If an unambiguous life is so awful, why has it nonetheless prevailed?
Because unambiguousness initially makes life easier. Dealing with diversity demands both time and energy—and lowers efficiency. I think we all know the example of Mark Zuckerberg, who always wears the same gray t-shirt so as not to waste energy standing in front of the closet choosing an outfit every morning. Most people basically follow this example and the dictates of our society to be efficient and strive to become even more efficient, because it’s easier and is valued. Whether ever-increasing levels of efficiency actually make any sense usually isn’t questioned. This creates a constant acceleration mechanism, spinning around a void.
But people today are dressed more individually than ever before!
You think? I only ever see people wearing functional clothing and fitness trackers out on the street. It’s rarely the case that someone dresses up to go outside. You’re right, of course, that everyone in our society is allowed to dress according to their own taste. But who really does that? Ultimately, there’s a great deal of uniformity and even supposed subcultures are globally standardized. The hipster in Berlin looks like the one in Cape Town, the punk in New York like the one in Warsaw. It’s a lifestyle of consumption par excellence.
How can you escape this increasing lack of variety?
It’s practically impossible for the average person. If you behave differently than the majority, you don’t fit into the set framework and are excluded from society. You can only live differently if you are already outside of society and have nothing left to lose. Or if you’re particularly privileged. To give you an example from my own life: I allow myself a two-hour break every day to eat lunch in my favorite restaurant and have a glass of wine with my meal. This clearly puts me outside the norm these days. And I can only get away with it because I’m a professor.
Do you think that the pandemic will change anything about this?
In my view, dealing with the pandemic only further solidified the existing system of values. Working life continued largely undisturbed, but everything that had to do with culture, entertainment, sports and enjoyment was stopped. This shows very clearly that our society doesn’t attach much in the way of intrinsic value to these things. They’re only viewed as recreational factors to recover from work and for work. I don’t see anything changing here due to the pandemic.
What could bring about changes, then?
There are certainly new ideas out there for business and society. Maybe something will catch on. Until then, individuals can try to establish small islands of ambiguousness in their lives—and enjoy a good lunch more often, for instance.