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The Age of Meaning

The Age of Meaning

Thursday, 09 November 2017
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

“Thirty years in journalism are a powerful stimulant for curiosity”.

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7 min read

Giving meaning to our democracies, our lives, to money, to uncertainty… the 9th FHH Forum considered these themes from a political, an economic but also a philosophical perspective. With a single common denominator: values inherited from the past, and which remain the most effective cure for brutality.

Interview Arturo Bris

Since its inception, the FHH Forum – whose ninth edition took place early November in Lausanne – has made a point of addressing the wider issues, the global challenges of today. Nothing very “watch-related” one might say, for an event whose organiser is the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie. But after all, watch brands are in the front line of globalisation, and have a duty to constantly reconsider the very concept of luxury in an environment where artificial intelligence, robotics, digitisation and the gig economy are the new normal. In the words of Arturo Bris, expert in global competitiveness and professor at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) which hosted the event, “If we consider global development over the past two millennia, we observe a phenomenal acceleration in growth over the space of fifty years that is essentially the result of progress in technology, and it is clear that technology will continue to drive development. With the caveat that as many people as possible should benefit from it”.

Interview Bill Emmott

Democracy, philanthropy and romance

Indeed, we cannot ignore the uncomfortable truth of a widening inequality gap, and what this implies for the very principles on which our political systems are built. “What if all those who feel cheated by the inequality at the very core of our societies were to rebel?”, asked Bill Emmott, author and former editor-in-chief of The Economist. “I remember how, forty years ago, in the midst of the oil crisis and the Vietnam War, West Germany’s chancellor Willy Brandt predicted the end of democracies. He was wrong, but it’s a question worth asking again. Because there’s work to be done. But ever the optimist, I still believe we have the best democracies money can buy!”.

Interview Karin Jestin

On the subject of money, and picking up on the question of wealth-sharing, philanthropy adviser Karin Jestin described the personal benefits to be gained from philanthropy. “I’ve got some good news,” she declared by way of introduction. “Money can buy happiness, in certain conditions and when we give it away! Every survey says the same. People derive immense satisfaction from charitable giving or from volunteering their time. And if they had to put a figure on this satisfaction, it would correspond to twice their income. In other words, giving makes you happy, and the more you give, the happier you become. Altruism wins over egoism”.

It's about beauty. Our role is to create beauty.
Tim Leberecht

Interview Tim Leberecht

To what extent can this mindset thrive in the world of work, where philanthropy is often a means of burnishing an image? And what of work itself? Employment is one of the ways we are accepted into society, hence being without employment leads to disenchantment, as can having a job when we feel alienated by business-as-usual. This second aspect inspired self-professed “business romantic” Tim Leberecht for his presentation. Why rage against machines when humans are notoriously difficult to manage professionally, and when soon half of jobs will be performed more efficiently, and for less, by robots. “It’s not about better,” Leberecht declared, “it’s about beauty. Our role is to create beauty”. Of course, beauty implies humanity. By stepping outside the pure rationality of the business world, we can oppose a system that demands everything be quantified and measured. Business Romanticism means doing the unnecessary, creating intimacy, letting ugliness express itself, and never being afraid of uncomfortable situations. This is how we create the beauty which, to quote Dostoyevsky, will save the world.

Interview André Comte-Sponville

Messages of hope

This return to humanist values is close to the heart of philosopher André Comte-Sponville, who is less concerned with change – which as Heraclitus already observed is inevitable – and more concerned with the speed of change. He reminded the audience that “change is a means, not an end. If we do change, it should be in order to progress, to continue. Change is therefore a part of continuation. We must also remember that any form of evolution will spontaneously tend towards maximum disorder. This is where we must call upon the values that were passed on to us, and that we must pass on in turn with the aim, as Pindar wrote, of becoming such as we are. Then we can ask ourselves not where to go, but where do we want to go. And the only way to know where we want to go is to know where we are from. Being true to our values is the only antidote we have to the Alzheimer of today’s civilisations, namely brutality. The twenty-first century will be true or will not be at all!”.

Interview Claude Barras

And while looking to the future, why not follow in the footsteps of Claude Barras, director of the double César-winning animated film My Life as a Courgette, and let children have their say. His film tells the story of a nine-year-old boy who is sent to an orphanage, where he learns the hard but also heartwarming lessons of life. “Even though it’s a made-up story, not a documentary, and even though I’ve been criticised for not sufficiently conveying the harsh reality of life in a children’s home, I wanted to show how incredibly resilient children are, and that life and friendship can triumph over the darkness of the world. You could say it’s a message of hope”.

Interview Patrick Chappatte

Editorial cartoonist Patrick Chappatte, whose drawings are published in Le Temps, NZZ am Sonntag and The New York Times, delivered a similar message. Not so much for the truth uttered by children, but for the meaning he draws, quite literally, from the great upheavals in our societies. “If there were to be only one meaning, one sense in the world, then it would have to be the sense of humour!”. Not forgetting that, as Pierre Desproges so rightly said, you can laugh about everything but not with everyone. Globalisation has its limits, too…

Interview Frédéric Kaplan

The Time Machine

Considered by many as the enemy of traditional craftsmanship, digital also has its supporters. Frédéric Kaplan is one. Holder of the Digital Humanities Chair at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, where he runs the Digital Humanities Lab, Professor Kaplan’s projects are a combination of digitization of archives, computer modelling and data visualisation. He and his team are currently working alongside researchers from Ca’Foscari University on an ambitious project to capture, in digital form, the history and evolution of Venice over 1,000 years – aptly titled the Venice Time Machine.

Speaking at the FHH Forum, Frédéric Kaplan described this fabulous adventure which began five years ago, has assembled a fifty-strong team, and has already caught the interest of other cities, including Jerusalem, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. “For the Venice project, we’re talking about 80 kilometres of archives that go back through ten centuries. They cover every type of record imaginable: maps, architectural plans, ambassadors’ correspondence, cadastral registers, notary records, and so on. Our challenge is to transform this vast collection of material into a searchable information system”. Working in successive stages, the documents are digitized – in some cases using specially developed scanners – and indexed to then develop algorithms that read the documents and identify connections between them to form a vast network from which the city will emerge – not frozen in history but as a living narrative extending across time and space. It’s a daunting task that will transform our relationship with the past, and which proves the limitless applications these technologies can have.

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