Nr. 17

KCTOS: Knowledge, Creativity and Transformations of Societies

Alfred Gusenbauer, Chancellor of Austria
Deutsch | English


When I was addressing those attending the INST-Conference „Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies“ on the 9th of December 2005, the question was to designate basic changes in societies in Austria and worldwide and also to point out programmatically necessities of changes. What was important then was that it was not a question of superficial features, of symbols of power for its own sake. In the centre of that speech was what had changed in the everyday life of people and what ought to and had to be changed in the everyday life.

After the election in Austria in October 2006 I was given the chance to become federal chancellor of a coalition government. The central point of departure, while negotiating, drafting and implementing the program of government was and is, to improve the everyday conditions of the masses of people in Austria. That meant not only an increase in pension payouts, a change in the structure of support, but above all to make it possible for people in Austria to partake in the processes of change. This implies not only to ameliorate poverty, but more than that, to eradicate poverty, structural mass unemployment by means of a new education, and new cultural structures. That implies to give people in Austria a new chance to take part in shaping their country – by lowering the voting age but also by a new framework for participating in social processes.

Your congress under the title „Knowledge, Creativity and Transformations of Societies“ attempts to find this out for Austria, but also for more than one hundred other countries in the context of globalisation, and to develop proposals for a globalisation with a human face, and in this way corresponds to modern science and research, which has developed in the frame of modern societies since the Middle Ages as an independent force. A science and a research, which does not produce insights in the service of power, which does not restrict itself to its interests, but which aspires to conditions which make free teaching and research possible, to make proposals in relation to social developments and to take part in this sense in the development of societies. Science and research which correspond to the understanding of the Austrian social democracy and the Austrian constitution.

It is remarkable that the organiser has succeeded to organise such a large and free forum, which on the one hand is characterised by diversity, and on the other hand is striving publicly via the internet towards synergies in a polylogue. A public working process of years, in which apparently thousands are taking part, and in which such international organisations as UNESCO, the EU and the Council of Europe are tied in.

In the context of your conference I would like to make the following five points in the context of your concept of the polylogue.


1. Knowledge

If there is talk today about a knowledge society, then one associates with this concept rather different interpretations and strategies.

The interpretation that knowledge is better than non-knowledge, is insufficient. In fact the knowledge of today’s human beings in modern societies is greater than that of some scientists of the past, even if they have not completed high schools. But these people do live in a world, which demands access to knowledge in every sphere, if they want to use the latest advances of this society. It is therefore important to ask about the kind of and function of knowledge in knowledge societies.

In this way the first and essential step to prolong one’s personal life – as has been shown by a recent scientific study – is that one is able to read and write. This study showed that (functional) illiterates are living a very much shorter life, because they do not have access to essential information about eating, medication, forms of work and life etc.

But not only the quality of individual life is closely tied up with access to knowledge. Essential problems of today’s societies are caused by functional illiteracy – such as the structural mass unemployment and the lowering of the social level.

These few considerations show already which strategic importance education has today. It is therefore about time to draw the necessary conclusions for the school system in Austria, but also elsewhere.

New schools

The first step is therefore to gain a new understanding for the importance of schooling, central to which since the modernisations of the 18th century is learning to read and write.

Because reading and writing was not only available to a small group, but that as many as possible should have access to knowledge through the introduction of general compulsory education in Austria in the 18th century, the foundation was laid to make society richer, both ideally and materially. One method which has been proven in centuries and which we may not loose sight of, is therefore that an education, which should be broadly based as far as possible, is the basis for the wealth of a society. Top performances of a small group did not and do not suffice, however important they may be.

Furthermore reading and writing on its own do not equate to access to information and knowledge. Everyday life rather demands everywhere the interpretation of signs, images, words and sounds. That starts with the symbols in the metro or for the paths in an airport and does not end with historical symbols. Seeing images must be learned as much as understanding words and sounds.

These signs, images, words, sounds in the course of time do not always designate the same or correspond to the same. Meaning can change fundamentally – especially today.

These constant changes demand that working with old and new knowledge is learned. Or to formulate it differently: the development of interpretations, or thinking (and thus the use of interpretations) is one of the essential demands of the today.

Such a demand brings with it the demand for a new way of learning. No longer can we merely train the ability to reproduce, but we need to awaken capacities which allow us to handle given information or knowledge productively.

All of this happens in the context of a social development, which produces new structures. As far as the productive development of a society is concerned, it is not the command centres which are important, but the frame work for new processes, which we must understand as processes in everyday life.

Interpretations and societies

Even these few remarks make it clear that this new learning cannot be understood merely as an individual process. It can be shown that since the beginning of modernity literature, theatre, the arts, science, research are central elements, which through their specific form of creating a public sphere create the possibility of a dynamic social development. And it can be shown that a society will be all the wealthier, the larger the circle which can participate. Societies, on the other hand, which restrict these abilities to a small class or group, were and are the poorer or poor societies.

In fact, however, the developments in the social arena in the age of globalisation is not of such a manner that the new opportunities for a social effectiveness of education, literatures, theatre, the arts etc will be understood in a way that they can be used adequately. In many cases the social gulf is widening, because access to knowledge becomes less possible.

In this context it is not a question to create only artistic and scientific works which reach a wide public. It is especially the experiment, the attempt, the break, which have brought about innovations. The idea is that new interpretations should not only be learned in small groups, but that interpretations should be debated in public.

Science and Research

Specialists are important in public discourses about knowledge, but they are only one element in a broad, complex process of change, in which knowledge, interpretations etc. are constantly changing. Science and research occupy a special social position. We expect of them – and of the arts – that they are motors of innovations. But this expectation is not always met. Structures of science and research are still characterised today by inner hierarchies which are only interested in their own advantages, taking over other models of production (from industry: hours, number of units produced), the dirigisme of calls and pre-given programs, and pre-determined structures.

Such concepts impede the development of science and research, because processes of interpretation and thought can only marginally be grasped in numbers and subjected to models or hierarchies.

The central keywords in this context are public sphere, plurality, material security, independence, democracy and direction towards processes of interpretation and thought.

The Media

The media could be essential carriers of the development of knowledge societies, in so far as they make available the platforms for the necessary social discourses. But in the media one encounters quite different developments – reports which are analogous to the curiosity cabinets of the 18th century, Bought inserts which are supposed to underline publicly scientific importance, but are merely an expression of financial muscle. In short: the role of the media would have to change fundamentally in the development of knowledge societies; on the other hand one can see completely new structures for the creation of a public sphere for science and research in the WWW or by means of cooperation with cultural institutions.

The World Wide Web

In this context the WWW provides completely new possibilities. In the last few years it has acquired increasing importance. Especially in the area of the infrastructure much will be done in the framework of the government program, so as to ensure a greater accessibility. What is in question is not only the material infrastructure but more importantly to use the WWW for a new participation in society and to create a new access to knowledge.


2. Creativity

In the old school system of reproductions – which was useful for agrarian and industrial societies – creativity often was a negative criterion. There are many examples of leading figures of the knowledge production, such as Wittgenstein and Einstein, who obtained bad marks at school. Inversely it is, of course, not true at all that bad marks in school as such are a sign of creativity. To separate creative students in special schools is not necessarily an ideal solution, because learning always also takes place in the social arena, which is a reason why schools and universities cannot be replaced by computer screens, where everyone learns for themselves. With the use of modern technique excellent new possibilities were created, but the core of education remains to acquire social competence, so as to be able to take one’s place in society.

This social competence is required everywhere in everyday life as much as the creative dealing with signs, languages, symbols, information, knowledge. This is an essential prerequisite in the simplest everyday interactions, but the structures of the schools are not adapted to that. That is true for the time until 14 years of age as well as for the “high schools”, which towards the end of the 20th century began to give more weight to hours and content than on the ability to understand, to find access to knowledge, to interpret or to think. Nevertheless entirely new approaches to cooperation have arisen in the most diverse areas.

Creativity in the knowledge society means therefore, to develop in a new way, taking into consideration the development of individual abilities in the context of social processes and creating the possibility to bring these abilities into social processes.


3. Societies

Knowledge is in direct relationship to society and the development of societies. And in contrast to theories which say that a social differentiation increases the wealth of a society, the history of Austria does show that the wealth of Austria increased the more people took part in the development, the greater their abilities were to act in cooperation with others.

In the context of the current activities of the government this means, on the one hand, to eradicate negative factors, on the other hand, to make innovation possible. Today’s modern budget politics profits especially when it succeeds to decrease mass unemployment, so that the cost of the social systems decrease, and at the same time the tax income and the possibilities of the state increase.

That will not succeed if only traditional forms of production are supported. What we need here is another direction which refers to the new possibilities of knowledge and its distribution via the internet.

All these social processes are determined by the contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous. Even if the knowledge society increases in importance, agrarian and industrial production remain nevertheless of central importance. But even these forms of production change, because they derive value from the development of knowledge. Yet it does not make sense to direct the production of knowledge exclusively to those traditional forms of production.


4. Transformations

My interpretation of the concept “knowledge society” is, that life quality and life span have been decidedly improved through knowledge, that the productivity and quality of industrial and agricultural production, as well as of the service sector, have been decidedly increased. But knowledge society means for many a new way of structuring their life, and a new definition of solidarity.

The demands in the knowledge society are therefore not only to enhance the quality of knowledge, but to make this knowledge widely accessible. Transformation in this context does not only mean a special form of a subsidy for production costs under a new name, but transformation means above all a new social use of knowledge. Transformation in this sense is social change – meaning another form of politics, which does not enforce, but enable, does not prevent but create new framing conditions. Transformation in this sense means social democracy in the best sense of the word. And knowledge society means in this context that social democracy should be realised under new conditions.

The beginning of these transformations are changes in everyday life. Insights about eating, drinking, living, mobility, identities, human relations, climate etc. have changed fundamentally in the last decades. This was realised only partially on the side of the state e.g. in Austria. Especially in the sphere of the schools, creating equality in partnerships and in many other spheres one can find basic deficits. And especially in these spheres we should create new preconditions in many cases.

The principle of such a new politics of making things possible in the transformation of societies is, that the state does not discipline where individual processes are developing, as long as they do not harm others. Rather the principle of avoiding violence – including that of the state – should be in the centre of our considerations. That corresponds with development since the Enlightenment which centred around „Eternal Peace“ (Immanuel Kant), the „gradual production of thoughts while speaking“ (Kleist), the freedom to choose one’s partner (and its legal social security), and social justice in their considerations.

My interpretation of the knowledge society is not limited to the kind of production, which changes by the use of knowledge, but my interpretation of the concept “knowledge society” attempts, on the basis of the new possibilities, to create the preconditions, which offer qualitatively new individual and social possibilities on the broad basis of participation.


5. Everyday Life and Politics

Even if it was said at the end of the 20th century that politics would loose its importance, it was shown in the 21st century that the formation of concepts and politics also determine economics, even if the reality of economics has an essential influence on politics.

This formation of concepts was in past years and decades not always based on knowledge. In the context of health (cigarettes), climate (global warming) and many other topics, it could be shown that it is dangerous to leave the production of knowledge to a small group which is essentially financed from a certain direction. The damage which arises out of this is enormous and can be expressed in very large numbers.

For a politics in the 21st century, which is directed towards the well-being of the population and which understands itself as a contribution towards giving globalisation with a human face, the following elements are central, in order to bring about transformation in societies and to contribute to an improvement of the conditions of life of human beings:

  • Eliminate poverty as an essential source of exclusion from social processes (the program of the government of Austria has outlined essential steps in this direction).
  • Making broad participation in social processes possible – especially in knowledge societies – by means of education (not only for productions of the greatest variety, but also for the individual development in everyday life and social interactions).
  • The use of the internet for a broad social participation, as it is practised by this very conference.
  • The recognition of the central importance of language, literature, the arts, science and research, as underlined by this conference.
  • Understanding interpreting, thinking as central elements of individual and social development and direct the emphasis of education onto the competence to find access to knowledge and to deal with knowledge.
  • To enable new forms of taking part in shaping society in the sense of a social democracy.

Finally I want to point out that within the frame of this conference you will be able to see a performance of the play „La Fine del Mondo“ by Jura Soyfer, commemorating his 95th birthday on the 8th of December 2007. The organisers of the conference highlight this performance in Italian as an example for the fact that people can understand each other even if they do not speak a common language, because much in our everyday life is part of the unifying aspects of culture. However important the learning of languages is, it remains fundamentally important to know and respect the life interests of the other. Especially the plays of Jura Soyfer can make an important contribution to this.

Jura Soyfer’s everyday life, who was born in 1912 in Charkow in the Ukraine, but who spent the greater part of his life in Vienna, was characterised by the debate about social injustice, political violence in everyday life and in the university, dictatorships, civil war and the threat of a global war. He died on the 16.2.1939 in the concentration camp Buchenwald. His worldwide importance is shown by the fact that his work has been translated into 30 languages.

As far as Austria is concerned his work allows insights about the difference with everyday life and politics in the past. It shows that using violence never was or is a locomotive of history, but that violence only led to destruction and mass murders in the 20th century. It is therefore important to recognize that a knowledge society cannot function, if it excludes the broad masses from knowledge. Rather a broad participation of the community, a social democracy is not to be understood as merely a concession, but as one of the preconditions of the wealth of a society and for a culture of peace, which in the 21st century must be central desideratum.

In this sense I wish fort his conference that it may contribute something fundamental to the development of our current knowledge societies.

[Translation P. Horn]


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