What if life came with an instruction

A guide to digital lifeDare to be more perplexed

Wouldn't it be much more productive not to look for the one simple solution at all? Perhaps we should face our own perplexity and try to use it constructively: The ability to cope with excessive demands would then be the central skill to be developed for a complex present. The perfect symbol for this is an emoticon from the Internet: the shruggie, the shruggie, made up of characters from the Japanese katakana alphabet. Using the example of 'Shruggie', Dirk von Gehlen developed the basics of his emoji philosophy as a guide to helplessness for a relaxed approach to the new.

Dirk von Gehlen, born 1975, is a journalist, book author and crowdfunding pioneer. He was editor-in-chief of Jetzt.de and now heads the Social Media / Innovation department at the "Süddeutsche Zeitung". On digital-notizen.de he blogs about the changes in the media landscape.



Horst Seehofer knows. Doubts are alien to the CSU interior minister. He knows his way around. Because: Horst Seehofer has a master plan. The term comes from English and describes the perfect procedure in a complicated situation: the one correct answer, the silver bullet, the optimal solution - all of this means "master plan". And Seehofer has this master plan. At least that's what he says. "Masterplan Migration" is what his communications team called the ideas that the Interior Minister presented in mid-June in a dispute with the sister party. In the noise that it triggered, one aspect has somewhat disappeared, but it is very helpful to find your way around the complicated present: the term master plan itself.

Anyone who chooses this term wants to make it clear: "I know, doubts are alien to me. I know my way around." There are people who want precisely this attitude from politicians. Especially in confusing times, the appearance of the master plan gives you a sense of security, structure and overview. They think: "You just have to follow the master plan and the confusion disappears again." And if things are not yet as desired, it can only be because the master plan was not implemented correctly.

As simple as that.

At this point I want to include a shrug that you cannot hear. But maybe you know the symbol for the shrug from the Internet. A small emoticon, eleven characters from the Japanese katakana alphabet. Assembled to form a happy little figure that shrugs its shoulders helplessly: the shruggie.

The shruggie doesn't think it's that simple. As with the Unionstheater this summer, the well-announced master plans usually do not work out. It is not uncommon for there to be no simple solution to problems, not the master plan. Maybe instead we should acknowledge

"that often more factors affect a situation than we can control."

At least that is how the sociologist Armin Nassehi defines complexity - and demands: In a complex world we need different skills, a new attitude.

Sociologist Armin Nassehi (dpa / picture alliance / Erwin Elsner)

We have to learn that a supposedly gripping construction with the hands leads to the next turn that you knock over things with your backside that you had previously painstakingly put together. And the fact that they fall over is in no way due to the fact that they behaved so clumsily. There are simply connections and interrelationships that one has not considered beforehand and which then come to light shortly before the master plan is announced. Anyone who wants to observe this on a global political level should take a look at the Brexit negotiations. The master plan "Just get out of the EU" has turned into a complex puzzle game from which some of the main protagonists have already withdrawn in annoyance.

Maybe it's not that easy after all.

Again, please think of the shrugging emoticon: Shruggie.

The world not only seems to be getting more and more complicated, it is more and more complex. There are dependencies that cannot be recognized in advance. There are ambiguities that make simple solutions impossible. The science writer and cabaret artist Vince Ebert states very dryly:

"Complex systems don't have a master plan. Many of us see this as a disadvantage. But in reality it's great."

Another shrug. With full consent.

We believe there can be one good solution

Because if we accept that there is no such thing as a master plan, that can also be liberating. We then break away from the social longing for the simple answer. Because secretly, despite all the ambiguity, we still like to believe that there can be a good solution. Regardless of political orientation and social issue, this masterplanization of the debate can be observed in countless areas. You make your own approach the only solution. It follows: a confrontational polarization and an emotional dispute that can hardly lead to a compromise.

Would you like an example apart from the politically instrumentalized fate of fleeing people? Then ask at an elementary school parents' evening whether the children should use smartphones. In response, you get the bestseller-fueled total rejection: "Makes us all stupid and dependent." And then in return the euphoric technology hug that tablet cases demand for every class. Or you ask at a writers' conference whether it would not be more gender equitable to speak of writers in the future - instead of always choosing the masculine form. Here, too, you will receive emotions from both sides in response, albeit with completely opposite content. The decline of the German language is predicted from one side - and from the other you will hear that the oppression of women by the generic masculine will also be cemented in the 21st century.

Both bad, both urgent, everything confrontational.

Don't worry, I'm not going to give you the one correct answer to any of the above questions. You won't even hear a soft "solution is definitely somewhere in the middle" from me. Because I fear something much worse: Maybe both sides are right, who contradict each other in such a polarizing way. Because that is the agonizing thing about the complexity: that there can be many paths. Science speaks of ambiguity, which means ambiguity.

Again, think of a shruggie with a shrug.

Maybe we don't just have to accept that the world has become more complex and confusing. Perhaps we also have to learn to deal with the ambiguity in possible answers. This is called tolerance for ambiguity. The ability to stop searching desperately for the master plan - and the reassuring feeling of being right that comes with it. In the language of the Internet, one could translate the difficult word ambiguity tolerance with the characters from the Japanese katakana alphabet already quoted: with the happy shruggie shrug.

Emoticon has what it takes to shape an attitude towards the complex digital present

The shruggie is cheerful and serene - but never indifferent. The characters in the middle of the emoticon show a friendly smile. The shruggie is not only the humanization of characters, it is also on the side of humans. No truth is more valuable to him than humanity. He would never justify violence or hatred for a belief. He doesn't shrug his shoulders when people are suffering. He then tries to take action. But not according to the simple pattern of no alternative, but with the constant doubt that the opposite could also be correct. Had the shruggie already existed when Karl Popper formulated his theory of critical rationalism, Popper might even have had the emoticon printed on the cover.

I asked you to think about the shruggie because I believe the emoticon has what it takes to shape an attitude towards the complex digital present. Not only as an alternative for the master plan makers in politics, but also in numerous other areas of society. In the world of work, in dealing with the challenges of digitization and possibly very fundamentally with everything that is new and strange. Sascha Lobo even once described the shruggie attitude as perhaps the first emoji philosophy. The shruggie dares to look at the world that is pluralistic and open. And above all: digital. The emoticon is a child of the internet. Someone even wrote there that the shruggie expresses the basic feeling of the digital age, the default Internet feeling. The Internet is a global network that transcends national, language and religious borders. The very existence of the Internet can be read as proof that racism and exclusion are outdated. If you will, the network of nets shows that bridges are stronger than walls, that multiculturalism is more effective than isolation. In terms of human history, this is a gift - and a challenge. Because those who want to spread their master plan in debates on the web often use the new communication options to preach dissociation and hatred. The shruggie as a child of the net can remind you and us of how the idea of ​​a free and tolerant society works - especially on the Internet. The happy shrug is the perfect symbol for a pluralistic attitude towards the world. It stands for the protection of minorities, for tolerance and for constant doubt.

Because that is the mainspring of a plural democracy, on which the Internet is based: that you are confronted with different perspectives and can change your mind. The right to freedom of expression is of little value as long as it is just a matter of repeating the same point of view over and over again. Because you already know beforehand that you are right. Even authoritarian dictatorships allow that. Freedom of expression only becomes valuable through the ability and willingness to change one's mind. And that only works if you keep asking with the serenity of the shruggy: What if the opposite were correct?

In this attitude it becomes tangible what Karl Popper considered to be the central aspect of democracy: that there is a good way to change a government. But this attitude does not only apply to the big, social issues. It also works in everyday life: Imagine going to elementary school parents' evening or to the writers with the shruggie. You can also disturb any other ideologically polarized and thus confused situation with this opening of perspective. The best thing to do is to start with yourself: choose a topic that is really important to you. It can be a vegan diet, marriage for all, or animal rights. No matter. It's just a matter of changing your perspective. List the five most relevant arguments for this - but not for your opinion, but for that of the other side. Bundle up the other who have the supposedly wrong opinion.

Can you do it? Can you come up with five arguments? Not that easy, right? Kurt Tucholsky is credited with the quote that tolerance is the suspicion that the other may be right. This tolerance is the prerequisite for a democratic conversation. The shruggie asks you: When was the last time we were tolerant of this?

To practice this tolerance, a first step can be to separate people and opinions. Democracy is the competition of ideas, not the collection of personal insults. So let's pit ideas against each other - regardless of personal preferences and sympathies. The US economist Bryan Caplan developed the so-called ideological Turing test for this. This is precisely about: Naming the arguments of the other side so precisely that they agree. The name goes back to the computer pioneer Alan Turing. The Turing test is the attempt by a computer to imitate human communication. The Turing test is passed if a computer succeeds in communicating to a person that it is interacting with a person, not a machine. The ideological Turing test is about taking the position of the other side. So to look at the world from a different perspective. Whoever succeeds in doing this remains a democrat. Hate speech or even death threats are then forbidden on their own.

In order for a democratic dispute in this sense to succeed, role models are needed: Discussions that run differently than the "Now let me finish" shows on television. Imagine, at the next talk show, the discussants would have to go through the ideological Turing test before the argument - in other words, name the arguments of the other side. Or political comments would not only express personal opinions, but describe the moment at which the commentator changed his mind - because he was convinced or took a new perspective. That seems impossible on German television. But it does exist on the Internet: In the "Change My View" forum, discussants collect moments of change of opinion. They engage in political discourse not through confirmation, but through doubt - and tell of the moment when they changed their minds on a topic.

Shruggie as an alternative to the simple answers of the master plans

For the 2017 federal election, the AfD posted the sentence "Our country, our rules". The shruggie likes that slogan. Because one of the central rules for the free-democratic basic order in this country is that of the plural openness to the other opinion. Democracy in this country means that you can also be wrong. "Our country, our rules" means: I allow the suspicion that the other side is right. I am open to the new, to the other and the foreign. This is what the shruggie attitude towards the world is based on - and he would have nothing against it if the AfD in particular adhered to it.

The shruggie is the opposite of the simple answers in the master plans. On the contrary, he wants us to stop hiding our own perplexity behind master plans. The shruggie likes politicians who do not announce master plans, but instead acknowledge complexity and disclose their attempts at coping. Just imagine: Members of Parliament who admit on talk shows: "We don't really know either. But now we're going to try this approach, measure its success and then draw conclusions from it."

Sound silly? Then imagine shrugging your shoulders here again.

When everything is getting faster, more complex and confusing, that also means: Nobody can know everything, overview everything, and certainly not assess and classify everything. So the shruggie is, so to speak, the alternative to the world leader of the old school. If you choose just one of the digital present-day problems, you find that the old white men, who are otherwise called for advice, could at most present one variant of a solution. Instead we have the shruggie today and it teaches us what the journalist and book author Christoph Kucklick calls "Overload coping skills". That's 35 letters. Pretty long. The shruggie has eleven signs and means the same thing: the ability not to be depressed by one's own perplexity - but to believe in a future that can be shaped.

Because shruggie is about society not allowing itself to be blinded by excessive demands, fear and perplexity - and therefore accepting the lack of alternatives. He wants us not to lose sight of the opposite position. That is why the shruggie does not want to combat perplexity, but on the contrary even encourage it. Because for him helplessness is not the problem, but the approach to a possible solution - or too many solutions. He believes: Solutions can only come about if we face the new and our own perplexity. This is the only way we can find new solutions to new problems - instead of trying the old approaches over and over again.

How can this be done?

In which we practice a more relaxed approach to the new, the unknown and the strange. The shruggie recommends a walk in the park. This can make us more relaxed - especially in heated debates. If we're lucky, we can even have a haha ​​experience in the park. So a moment of realization based on an invention called Haha. It is a trick from the horticultural art of the early 18th century. The Haha was invented by the British landscape architect Charles Bridgeman. He designed numerous palace parks and gardens and was the first to come up with the idea of ​​not building a wall brick by brick upwards, but rather sinking it into the ground - as a very steep moat. Bridgeman reversed the principle of the wall: he had trenches with steep embankments dug so close to the edge of the park that they were insurmountable for humans and animals, but allow a clear view over the boundaries of the park.Only when you stand directly in front of the ditch do you see that it cannot be surmounted - which triggers a feeling of astonishment that is reflected in the strange name. Haha!

The shruggie likes that feeling of astonishment. It opens the view. It is the basis for new approaches, the prerequisite for a different way of thinking. You can find the Haha in the palace gardens at Versailles and in Munich at the Nymphenburg Palace. But figuratively they should be found much more often. Because a haha ​​can also make our daily life more beautiful: If we allow ourselves an open look. When we question our own habits and premises, when we dare to look beyond the walls of thought. So you can discover new things - even in what you think you already know. One speaks in reverse of the déjà-vu of a vuja-de. In a déjà vu, you think you're seeing something familiar in a strange environment. A Vuja-de, on the other hand, describes the ability to discover something new in the familiar.

The haha ​​of the horticultural art is the architectural answer to the alleged lack of alternatives and the master plans of the simplifiers. It enables a change of perspective. Hans Georg Gadamer once said that education is the ability to see things from someone else's perspective. Investing in education in this sense seems long overdue, not only because of the polarized debates - you can even start immediately: by confronting other people's opinions in the sense of the ideological Turing test. By allowing the suspicion that the opposite might be true.

Because just because a situation appears to be hopeless or without an alternative, it doesn't always have to stay that way. The next generation may succeed in something that the current generation seems impossible because it is unsolvable. If that is the case, then it must be said that the people who will find solutions are already alive today. Maybe they are still going to school and growing up in a world that is currently overwhelming their parents and grandparents. The sociologist Heinz Bude recently came to the conclusion in an interview with the "Süddeutsche Zeitung":

"We are increasingly dealing with unsolvable problems."

If that is true, then it falls to the parents and grandparents to teach their children not solutions, but skills that can be compared with a shrug of the shoulders in a seemingly hopeless situation. No cynical distancing, no stupid teasing - but the open question: what if the opposite were correct?

Everything you know about creativity today comes down to this point that you also have before a haha: a moment of surprise. A moment when someone thinks differently, takes the liberty of doing something - and can thus cause a change of opinion and inspire new ideas.

The shruggie stands for this moment of openness - and you don't only find it on the net. Under the catchphrase "New Work", the attitude it stands for is spreading even further in the world of work. The master plan model of the omniscient boss has become obsolete in more and more companies. Instead, they rely on interdisciplinary teams that are managed according to so-called agile methods. The organizational principle called "Scrum" transfers responsibility to the departments. Goals are coordinated and the teams then decide independently how they can achieve the goals. The superior no longer leads through control, but rather through trust. In some places, bosses see themselves as coaches for their employees, whose goal is to make the team better for the company.

New Work is a catchphrase that is based on the ideas of the philosopher Frithjof Bergmann, who founded a "Center for New Work" near Detroit in the early 1980s - in response to the impending wave of layoffs in the local auto industry. The central idea of ​​the center: the workers should do something they "really, really want". In a recent interview, Bergmann describes a consequence of his approach:

"This means that our school system concentrates much more consistently on developing potential instead of making young people fit for a job market that will no longer exist after they graduate from school."

After all, who can credibly predict what the world of work will look like in five or ten years?

Exactly - the shruggie shrugs his shoulders here too.

New forms of cooperation are needed

The impermanence seems to be certain. One speaks of the so-called VUCA world. These four letters form an acronym for the terms volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. VUCA is a world in which simple solution specifications no longer apply. In order to prevent employees from being overwhelmed by their own fear, the New Work movement uses the ideas of the shruggie attitude and tries to develop a relaxed relationship with the new. It promotes the willingness to try out the unknown. If an omniscient boss can no longer make clear predictions, the demands on employees grow to be able to react independently and depending on the situation.

This requires new forms of cooperation: diversity and the willingness to think about the unknown and new. The sociologist Armin Nassehi transfers this form of interdisciplinary team to politics. In an interview with the weekly newspaper "Die Zeit" he suggests more committees that function like the German Ethics Council - as a collection of different perspectives from different areas. The goal: to come up with new approaches in this way. Because this is the only way to build sufficient complexity, says Nassehi and comes to the conclusion:

"I believe that complexity does not leave us speechless, but rather leads to new possibilities."

That is perhaps the most important answer that manifests itself in the shruggie's shrug: the hope for a shapeable future. Because no matter how complex and overwhelming the present may seem, the shruggie believes that a better future can be possible through your own efforts. In his recently published book "Innovation - Policies for barrier-free thinking", the author Wolf Lotter has made an appeal for precisely this ability that is well worth reading. In it he writes:

"Innovation is, in one sentence, the legitimate reason to hope that things will get better. The proof that the future exists."

This form of innovation does not need master plans, but something much more mundane: hope and confidence. What would it be like, the shruggie asks himself, if politicians no longer only take people's worries seriously, but above all their hopes? How would politics change if, when dealing with the new, we no longer first point out the dangers, but rather the possibilities? In the sense of the Haha one would notice a widening of the perspective, one would look forward and actively shape it. Because that is the essence of hope, that it shows us that we can shape the course of the world through our own efforts.

At least that's how the US author Rebecca Solnit once put it perfectly. She writes:

"Hope is the embrace of the unknown and that which one cannot know. Hope is an alternative to the certainty expressed by optimists and pessimists alike. Optimists think everything will turn out for the best without our intervention; pessimists take the opposite position - both find it an excuse not to be active themselves. "