René Berger is the archetypal European erudite. He was a professor of literature at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland - where almost forty years ago he drew students but made colleagues suspicious by teaching courses such as "Esthetics and mass media" - and at the Sorbonne in Paris. Philosopher and art historian, he directed the Lausanne Museum of Arts. He has created and led cultural movements, groups and committees all over the world, produced television documentaries, edited and published scientific journals, started an amazing art site, written over 20 books.
Berger, who's 91 this week, is also an assiduous and impatient Internet user and blogger. He believes that a browser is a new kind of discovery vehicle, "a new Columbus caravel, even more captivating", he told me years ago. When you drop by, you may find him in the corner of his vast home library, busy answering an e-mail or reading with sparkling eyes some poetry he just found on some website. Discussions with Berger may start with topics such as the impact of MP3 on the nature of human knowledge, and develop in tentacular ways to encompass ancient Greece, international affairs, Renaissance painters, the newest Microsoft software and the last cool commercials.
I first met Berger a dozen years ago. I don't remember the exact circumstances that brought us together, but I remember vividly the byproduct of that first meeting: a long discussion, conducted by e-mail over a couple of weeks, on the sociocultural meaning of the Internet, which was then edited into a dialogue published by Swiss newsmagazine L'Hebdo and picked up by other publications. Every subsequent meeting with him turned into a master-and-apprentice experience, and large pans of what I know about the impacts of technology on our lives descend directly from conversations I had with Berger over the years. I published a couple more interviews with him and sometimes we appeared jointly as speakers at conferences.
So yesterday night I was in Lausanne for work and went to hear Berger speak at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where he was presenting his new book "Vers le temps réel" ("Towards real-time", published in French by Editions du Tricorne in Geneva, but - ultimate irony - not yet up on their website). Berger is an intense, iconoclastic and witty speaker. He has a reputation for prolixity - and he lives up to it. He wrote the book with Xavier Comtesse of the think-tank Avenir Suisse (they're together in the picture). The book is part technophilosophical autobiography (the first line reads: "On April 30, 1993, CERN offered the Web to the world"), part an augmented and updated compilation of texts he wrote during the last twelve years - a blog of sorts. While the first part is meant for the general public, the second is for more committed readers.
Despite his deep roots in history (philosophy, arts and letters), Berger is an explorer of modernity, of new phenomena and cultural objects. Trying to escape the limitations imposed by the existing vocabulary, he often creates new words to describe them. His long view contributes to a better understanding of out times, and gives a deeper and more coherent meaning to the notion that "the Internet changes everything".
Following the format of the book, Berger gave a biographical speech, intertwining personal anecdotes with profound analysis. "A dozen years ago something happened that was unexpected and unforeseen", he recalled. "The invention of the World Wide Web and the networking of the world introduced the idea that anyone can establish a contact with anyone else on the planet, in real-time. It's a Quixote-like idea, in a way. Real-time never existed before, and it brings a total transformation of our spirit, cultural categories, and behaviors".
At the beginning, "not many bought into this", but today the network is a vital portion of the economy and of everyday life: "It's becoming impossible not to visit with Google daily", he said.
Berger strongly believes that we live in the era of "technoculture", that for the first time in human history technology is a constitutive element of cultural development. He argues that the networked computer is not just another innovation in the long development of tools used by humans to enhance their capabilities. "Some may argue that we're just living another acceleration of history, but this is not the car replacing the carriage", he said, "this is about the brain, it's a cognitive revolution. We are at a totally different, superior level. For the first time in history, we can simulate reality, we can grasp the complexity of the real, we can create alternative realities. We can externalize our intellectual capabilities".