Borges died in Geneva

Nothing is built on stone; All is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.

Borges

Borges chose Geneva as his home and, ultimately, the place where he is laid to rest. Borges, one of the leading writers of the 20th century, was the master of discovering paradoxes and of addressing irreconcilable contradictions in human existence.

He rarely provides answers in his writings. Instead, he takes us on a journey showing that every certainty triggers a new uncertainty. Borges’s work gives a sobering look at the human condition and the limits of reason when it comes to solving personal and social problems.

His fiction is inspirational reading for addressing the core questions of humanity’s future, centred on the interplay between science, technology, and philosophy. His short story The Library of Babel,  written in 1941, is prophetic; it outlines the search for meaning in endless volumes of information, as we do today on the internet. Borges writes: ‘Nonsense is normal in the Library and that the reasonable (and even humble and pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception.’ 

The truth exists somewhere in Borges’ library but is almost impossible to find as it is overwhelmed by irrelevant information, fake news, and competing narratives. 

In addressing informational chaos, Borges shies away from giving a naive hope of certainty, but he does provide some hope: He advocates for order in chaos and argues that by taking an occasional rest, we can stop, or at least slow down, the constantly shifting kaleidoscope of meaning. 

Borges wrote about Geneva:

Of all the cities in the world, of all the homelands that a man seeks to earn, Geneva seems to me to be the one most likely to bring happiness. Thanks to her I discovered, since 1914, French, Latin, German, Expressionism, Schopenhauer, the doctrines of Buddha, Taoism, Conrad, Lafcadio Hearn and nostalgia for Buenos Aires. Also love, frienship, humiliation and the siren call of suicide. Things remembered are always pleasant, even trials. These are personal reasons, but I can give a more general one. Unlike other cities, Geneva has no emphasis. Paris is not unaware that she is Paris. Benevolent London knows that she is London. Geneva, however, barely realizes that she is Geneva. Here are the towering shadows of Calvin, Rousseau, Amiel and Ferdinand Hodler, but no one speaks of them to the traveller passing through. Geneva, somewhat like Japan, has renewed herself without losing her past.

Borges
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Here you can find an excerpt from Jovan Kurbalija’s study published in the Geneva Digital AtlasEspriTech de Genève  Why does technology meet humanity in Geneva?

Birth of Ferdinand de Saussure

Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.

Ferdinand de Saussure was a Geneva-born linguist, whose book ‘Course in General Linguistics’ (1916) became the cornerstone of modern linguistics. Saussure’s work on language and systems laid the basis for natural language processing (NLP) and modern AI.

Saussure’s pioneering linguistic research on identifying language patterns and relationships between signifiers and signifieds (or words and their meanings) is key to understanding how NLP systems can map words and other linguistic units to the concepts they represent, allowing them to perform tasks such as text classification and machine translation.

The conceptual bridge between Saussure and the latest AI developments is represented in Alan Turin’s paper titled ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’.

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Here you can find an excerpt from Jovan Kurbalija’s study published in the Geneva Digital AtlasEspriTech de Genève  Why does technology meet humanity in Geneva?

Mary Shelly starts writing ‘The Frankenstein’

Mary Shelley, the British writer, started writing ‘Frankenstein’ in 1816 in Villa Diodati in Geneva. Shelley was a great fan of science and experimentation. However, she also recognised the potential for the abuse and misuse of science and technology. 

Here you can find an excerpt from Jovan Kurbalija’s study published in the Geneva Digital AtlasEspriTech de Genève  Why does technology meet humanity in Geneva

Together with Lord Byron and a group of friends, Shelley came to Geneva in search of better weather, as Geneva typically has more sunny days than London. This was not the case in 1816. That year, both cities missed summer weather because of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. 

Shelley was a big fan of science and experimentation. She believed that science and technology could improve the human condition.  However, she also recognised the potential for abuse and misuse of these new technologies. In this way, Shelley brought into the focus  important questions about the ethics of progress and how to use scientific knowledge in a responsible way. 

Even though technology and society have come a long way since 1816, the dilemma that people faced then are still relevant today. How far can technology go in affecting core human features? Are there ethical limits to technological development?

Voltaire settles in Geneva

François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), better known as Voltaire, was one of the key figures of the Enlightenment. Voltaire lived in Geneva and the neighbouring village Ferney Voltaire, named after him, from 1755 until his death in 1778. His major works include ‘Candide’, ‘Philosophical Letters’, and ‘Treatise on Toleration’. Voltaire remains the icon of Enlightenment philosophy centered around reason, critical thinking, and scientific inquiry.

François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), better known as Voltaire, was one of the key figures of the Enlightenment. Voltaire lived in Geneva and in the neighbouring village of Ferney-Voltaire, named after him, between 1755 and his death in 1778. His major works include Candide, Philosophical Letters, and Treatise on Toleration. Voltaire is still the symbol of Enlightenment philosophy, which is based on reason, critical thinking, and scientific inquiry.

He was a strong advocate for the advancement of science and technology. Voltaire thought that everyone should have access to knowledge and that progress in science and technology should help society. In his writings, he frequently criticised the church and state for hindering scientific progress. 

Inspired by Newton’s empirical science and other works, Voltaire remained Newton’s proponent his whole life and always insisted on the use of evidence and facts in social sciences and public life.

Liberty and freedom were crucial to Voltaire’s philosophy. He argued that freedom of thought is a fundamental human right. He also advocates for freedom of expression and freedom of religion. In historical works, he often champions the cause of oppressed peoples and fights against tyranny.

I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it., is often attributed to Voltaire. Although there is no proof that these are his words, they capture the core of his philosophy of liberty very well. 

Voltaire’s pursuit of critical thinking and engaging debates is just as important today as it was a few hundred years ago. This is because public debates and spaces are very divided and full of biases and false information. 

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Here you can find an excerpt from Jovan Kurbalija’s study published in the Geneva Digital AtlasEspriTech de Genève  Why does technology meet humanity in Geneva?

Birth of Charles Bonnet

Charles Bonnet (b. 1720, Geneva), was a naturalist, botanist, lawyer, philosopher, psychologist, and politician. He is among the first thinkers to envisage machine learning – AI – as well as links between nature and technology, almost three centuries ago. In 1769, Bonnet wrote that ‘machines could be made to imitate human intelligence’. This insight is built upon his conceptual outline of neural networks, the key AI technology of our era.

Charles Bonnet, born in Geneva in 1720, was an exceptional polymath. His many academic interests included being a naturalist, botanist, lawyer, philosopher, psychologist, and politician.

Bonnet was an early boundary spanner, crossing disciplinary delimitations. This approach facilitated his far-reaching insights way ahead of time. 

In 1789, by building on the idea of neural networks, he envisaged AI by arguing that machines could mimic human intelligence. 

In his Essai de Psychologie (1755) he describes the concept of neural networks:

‘If all our ideas, even the most abstract, depend ultimately on motions that occur in the brain, it is appropriate to ask whether each idea has a specific fiber dedicated to producing it, or whether different motions of the same fiber produce different ideas.’ 

For more on Bonnet and neural networks consult Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

The idea of early neural networks was inspired by his theory of associations, which holds that ideas are connected in the mind through associations.

This idea was further developed by the American psychologist William James and John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher.

As a keen observer of nature, Bonnet identified numerous patterns and interesting phenomena. He also found that leaves on a plant stem are arranged in a way that matches the Fibonacci sequence. He was interested in how math could be used to describe patterns in nature. 

His work was largely forgotten until it was rediscovered in the early twenty-first century.

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Here you can find an excerpt from Jovan Kurbalija’s study published in the Geneva Digital AtlasEspriTech de Genève  Why does technology meet humanity in Geneva?

Birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born in Geneva on 28 June 1712, was one of the most important philosophers of the Enlightenment. His most influential works were the Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract

The call of the UN Secretary-General for societies worldwide to work on social contracts, addressing profound changes in modern society, renewed the relevance of Rousseau’s thinking. His Social Contract will be important reading as we try to answer critical questions about modernity and our future. 

According to Rousseau, social contracts are not formal contracts signed on the dotted line by all citizens. They are representations of the general will of all citizens around a few key principles. A process in which citizens regularly participate in public debates and decision-making is at the core of a social contract. It is much more than an occasional vote. 

Rousseau’s social contract is demanding on citizens. It requires being very involved in politics and always learning more about how to be a good citizen. 

His home city, Geneva, has come close to his ideal of a lively and engaging democracy.

Rousseau also argued that sovereignty stays with individuals, not the state. This idea could be important in the current talk about digital sovereignty, which usually means that states have control over digital networks and data. If we apply Rousseau’s thinking, digital sovereignty should be based on a person’s right to control his or her own data and digital assets. 

The question of a social contract was popular among other Enlightenment thinkers.

Hobbes, for example, in his Leviathan proposed a less demanding form of the social contract on citizens than Rousseau’s. Citizens were supposed to give their natural rights to a sovereign (state) in exchange for the state guaranteeing their safety. 

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Here you can find an excerpt from Jovan Kurbalija’s study published in the Geneva Digital AtlasEspriTech de Genève  Why does technology meet humanity in Geneva?

Calvin settles in Geneva

Calvin’s theology had a massive impact on science, technology, enterpreneurship, and social cohesion. Later on, it became Calvinism, and hugely impacted the economic, cultural, and political development of the United States.

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Here you can find an excerpt from Jovan Kurbalija’s study published in the Geneva Digital AtlasEspriTech de Genève  Why does technology meet humanity in Geneva?

Map and caveats

This tour, which starts with Calvin’s theology and thinking,  is inspired by Max Weber’s book, The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Although written more than a century ago, as the result of his search for the cultural origins of capitalism, this book is still one of the most influential sociological works on the interplay between religion, culture, and the economy. 

Calvin’s initial ideas, the two pillars of his social thinking – human agency and responsibility – as they were implemented and interpreted, got tilted in the USA to focus more on the former, human agency.

As Weber wrote: 

We are not considering the personal views of Calvin, but Calvinism, and also in that form to which it had developed at the end of the 16th and in the 17th century in large areas of his dominating influence.

So, Calvin’s insight could prove to be valuable in our current search for a balance between technological growth and human core values.

Geneva

Nothing is more dangerous than to be blinded by prosperity.

Calvin

Five centuries ago, John Calvin settled in Geneva and started preaching.  From his sermons grew Calvinism, a branch of Protestantism.

Calvin’s contribution to theology and philosophy is multi-faceted, as shown during the series of events celebrating the 500th anniversary of his birth back in 2009.  His legacy is controversial to this day. He is often criticised for authoritarian ruling and the austere morality of, for example, banning dancing.  Here, we outline a few aspects of his work that have the most direct relevance for tech-humanity interaction.

Calvin was an innovator and a critical thinker. He challenged many established truths of his era and created a bridge between Protestantism and modernity. 

The cornerstone of Calvin’s theology, Predestination, states that human efforts cannot bring salvation, only God’s grace can.

Although Calvin’s Predestination teaching did not link human efforts to salvation, he called on believers to glorify God throughout their life by their deeds. At first, he talked about moral deeds, but later, he started to talk about other kinds of deeds, such as those done at work. On this basis, Calvinism developed a theological justification for hard work, wealth, and a capitalist economy, as observed by Weber. 

Calvin was a strong supporter of individual actions and entrepreneurialism as part of a work ethic. However, he was also aware of the danger of wealth concentration for social stability.

Humility and modesty were important in Calvin’s theology. He also called for intervention on behalf of the weak as well as for banking ethics which is committed to justice and the global good. 

Stückelberger, C. (2009). No interest from the poor. Calvin’s economic and banking ethics.

His teachings are especially important now, when there is a big difference between rich and poor that threatens the social stability of many societies around the world. The growing wealth of the tech industry widens inequalities. For example, in 2022, 8 of the 10 richest companies in the world came from the tech sector. 

Calvin’s thinking could help in finding a balance between the freedom of action and making sure that everyone’s basic needs are met. 

He, like other Protestant thinkers, was enthusiastic about science and knowledge. If we want to change society, we have to understand it first. This has been the main theological reason for why Protestant societies all over the world have supported science and technology. Calvin lived at a time when science and discovery were taking off. Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama made big steps forward in geographical discoveries in the late 1500s. And in 1543, Copernicus’s shift in astronomy happened. 

At the same time, Calvin called for moderation and caution in using scientific advances, which were later echoed in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Even today, this line of scientific caution is still important because AI, biotechnology, and other advances in science and technology have a profound impact on society. 

Calvin also argued for universal education, including for girls, which was a very revolutionary proposal in the sixteenth century. Later on, another Genevan, Rousseau, put education at the centre of his philosophy. 

Today, five centuries later, universal education is still not universal.

The United States

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, via Scotland and the Netherlands, Calvin’s idea crossed the Atlantic Ocean to find new life on the American continent. Even in a symbolic way, Calvin’s copy of the Bible crossed the ocean on the historic Mayflower voyage. On the new continent, Calvin’s ideas grew into what is now called Calvinism, with all the similarities and differences from his original ideas. 

The centrality of individual freedom and work ethic in Calvin’s work garnered additional relevance. Individualism has become a key pillar of the US political, economic, and social systems. Calvinism had a critical influence on the inclusion of human rights in the American Constitution, according to Georg Jellinek. This theology has emphasised that every person is valuable and worthy on their own, and that freedom and self-determination are critical for personal and societal prosperity. 

Self-making and personal responsibility have become pillars of social ethics. The delicate balance between individuals and community, carefully crafted by Calvin, started tilting towards the centrality of individuals.

Personal endeavours in business and technology were almost limitless  with the hope that sometime/somehow an invisible hand would ensure that individual action was in sync with societal interest. As we realise more and more, the invisible hand exists only in specific political and economic contexts. A careful reading of Adam Smith’s opus shows that his concept of the invisible hand should be taken with the utmost caution.  

With a few exceptions, Calvin’s teachings on community responsibilities, which were at first very important to small groups of purists in the new land, started to lose their importance. Yet, social justice was supported by Walter Rauschenbush (1861–1918), a key figure in the Social Gospel movement. Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), one of the richest people of his time, spoke out against inheriting wealth and in favour of sharing it. 

Silicon Valley 

The departure from Calvin’s carefully balanced individual agency and societal responsibility went far in the Silicon Valley tech developments. Individualism prevailed over social responsibility, especially with the fast tech growth there over the last two decades.

The long glorious phase of Silicon Valley innovation and growth is increasingly tarnished with stories of the selfish elite, tax evasion, manipulation of the market, etc. 

A more balanced approach to society and business could be a benefit for the tech industry. It would also help to ‘uplifting’ their social roles.

Here, Calvin’s initial idea of freedom and responsibility, combined with Geneva’s rich philosophical heritage, as discussed in Section 3 of this text, could provide a backdrop for re-establishing a balance between technological development and societal responsibilities. 

Thus, in a way, after a long journey, the core ideas and dilemmas of modernity could return home for new elaboration.