Original Source (GALORE 2006) Translated by Sternenfisch in March 2014
The Last Interview
The Newspaper GALORE was given an interview by Stanislaw Lem on 15. November 2005 in his study in Cracow. It was to be his last interview. Lem died a few days after publication of the magazine at the end of March 2006.
The big Science-Fiction-Author has sworn of the visions of progress.
INTERVIEW (conducted by): PATRICK GROSSMANN
PICTURES (taken by): ERIK WEISS
„Intelligence is a razorblade.“
15.11.2005, in Stanislaw Lem's Study in Cracow. The polish Bestseller-Author and Visionary lives in an inconspicuous family house in a suburban settlement. The following three hours in the shadow of thousands of books are impressive: A wise old man about meanderings of technology, untenable utopias, reason - and its disappearance.
Mr. Lem – when was the last time you did something completely irrational?
Stanislaw Lem: I don't know whether it was actually irrational, but I asked my son to buy me this (points to the desk) electrostatic machine, because I find the spark gap quite delightful optically. I just like that: a million volts, which one can watch with the naked eye. But do I derive a measurable use from this millisecond? No! But it sure provides my grandchildren with hellacious amusement. (laughs)
I'm just asking because in your fictional works, as well as your essays, emotions are almost never a matter. But then, in the end, the whole of evolution is unthinkable without feelings and drives. Are you just not interested enough in this part of humankind?
Oh, I am interested. But first of all the process of writing is, in my case, a rational one. Usually, I don't shake when I sit on the desk. Which doesn't mean that I am totally cold-blooded because of that.
When looking at your vita I noticed a decision of yours whose motivation would interest me though: You let Steven Soderbergh make a Hollywood-Remake of your Bestseller „Solaris“ with which 'you 'in retrospect apparently were anything but happy with. Have you seen the movie at least?
No, not completely. But what I have seen was enough for me. Nonsense! Downright Nonsense. Everything interesting in my novel was referring to the relationship of humans towards this ocean as a non-humanoid intelligence - not to some interpersonal love-stories. Well, at least they paid me a fair compensation for pain and suffering. Since then I have strictly denied all other offers from America rigorously.
But you would have to guess, what 'mischief 'Hollywood would get into with the material. Why did you still approve of the project?
I was being persuaded. I would have no imagination of the possibilities of animation that one would possess nowadays, in the end, everything would be according to my taste. "There you go then!", I said. "Show that to me." Messed up they have it. Horrible. Compared to that even the Tarkowskijs version is a stroke of genius.
Can you relate to the fact that many people regard „Solaris“ as one of the most felicitous works of Science-Fiction of all time?
First of all: Neither am I an expert, nor an enthusiast of the so-called Science Fiction. The best that I, in my opinion, have published are a few books that stand in quite a weird relationship to the paradigm of genre; like for example the „Cyberiads“, „Memoirs Found in a Bathtub“ or „Golem XIV“, besides which the more essayistic part of my work, which, since 'Summa Technologiae' has been constantly been developed and expanded. I have started quite pathetic and then improved slowly. (pauses for a moment) You know what? I'm a bit surprised, that people like you still have an interest in me and my thoughts - in a period of time where authors rise, shortly shine and then extinguish like a supernova. Almost no one from the sixties is anything but nothing to write home about nowadays.
I guess that's due to the topic. You are writing...
...luckily nothing anymore! I dictate to my secretary here and there, as a political observer so to say. 44 volumes of my collected works are truly enough. Despite all wishes: It would be nonsensical to stress that further. Period.
Born on 12.09.1921 in Lwów (Lemberg), Galicia, as Son of a Doctor, Stanislaw Lem also studied medicine at first, but soon showed himself to be fascinated with rather unrelated topics like Physics, Cybernetics, Mathematics, and Philosophy. After the state examination, he worked for some time as an assistant for applied psychology, before he felt drawn more and more to literature and published his first novel 'The Astronauts' in 1951. Till today Lem's books have been translated into 57 languages and have his editions have reached 45 million sold books worldwide. Lem lives with his wife Barbara, a former Radiologist, and Dachshund Philipp in Krakau.
„Knowledge itself curiously enough has turned into a problem. And whoever can solve that problem will be mighty.“
You got the feeling of having said everything there is to say?
I am old, for God's sake! With 85 writing doesn't excite me anymore. For 40 years I got up every morning at five and said down at the typewriter until my buttocks told me it was enough. (chuckles) Today I'm an old man. Of course, I'm somewhat of a doter. Not totally, but considerably. So if you tell me that you have read almost everything of my writing, then I don't know whether I should rather apologize for it or thank you for it.
You're not serious.
Oh yes, certainly. If it went according to me, you could throw out 30 percent of my literary work into the bin. This and that is still alive though. You know, intelligence is a razor blade. One can use it for a good purpose, but one can also cut ones' throat with it. At the ground of its being it is unhealthy.
With your IQ of 180, you were once considered "the smartest child of south Poland". Are there, in your opinion, actual areas of life where too much intelligence is rather a hindrance?
Statistically speaking, yes. Who wreaks his head constantly over the simplest tasks forgets to take the kettle off the stove, no?
Which description you think fits you best: Researcher, Writer, Philosopher?
A difficult question. (thinks) As a writer, I have made an effort. A philosopher I am not, and if, then involuntary. Researcher, even more so I am not. I am sitting here, lonely, and try to read interesting things. But that becomes harder and harder because so immensely much rubbish is published.
What about Visionary?
Well you know... of course, I could select this beautiful word to ornate myself. I could also stand and marvel in front of the five honorary doctorate degrees that german universities alone had given me. But that's beside the point. What I was, I don't know. Now I'm an old man, in who a last vital spark and rest of intelligence flicker. You are talking to a Hulk, dear Sir. (whispers) I even was clinically dead two years ago.
How did that happen?
I just dropped, because back then I didn't know about my adult-onset diabetes, and had eaten too many sweets. The results were a serious injury to the head, one and a half liter blood loss and finally a few hours of coma. And what can I say? It was a very comfortable state; a state of complete emptiness. Since this event, I know that after death nothing awaits us. An absolute nothing. For me as an atheist a soothing prospect.
In regards to your person, one general diagnosis can hardly be avoided: that of the transformation from SciFi-Visionary to Progresscritic and -doubter.
That is correct, yes. Because progress that has been set absolute automatically turns into regress. In all possible levels - ethical, technological, political. You as an individual can scream as much as you like. You won't even be heard. Nothing is there you can do to direct it!
You called yourself an "optimistic pessimist". But when reading your newer texts the optimistic element is almost completely absent.
Partly that is caused simply biologically. Whether human or animal, everyone, at his birth, gets injected a portion optimism. Look at young dogs, how they jump, isn't it? But when one is old and has nothing to anticipate but death, then it gets hard to look forward constructively. Please, don't misunderstand me: I like death, as said. If my family wasn't against it, I would have long since put an end to it all. And regarding my writing the prospects aren't any better: Hardly has the coffin of an author being closed, even if he was so visionary at the time, he falls victim to collective forgetfulness. There is a very true proverb: "Nobody reads anything. If one reads something, he understands nothing. If he understands something, he forgets it immediately."
Nevertheless does a lot of what you had published decades ago have relevance and actuality in the 21st century. In "Solaris" for example, the wise sentence stands: "We don't need other worlds, we need mirrors."
There you are right. And still, people don't grow tired of fantasizing aliens and alien planets. The Americans eagerly produce Series like "Star Trek". Earlier, in the fifties, one croaked preferably on board of a sunken submarine, nowadays in the far reaches of space. The reason is eventually the exact same: anoxia. While there would be many more important things to do. Think about the riots in France, about 40 billion Euro deficits in Germany or the folly that Bush commits still in Iraq. Latest 1986, when I published my last fictional work "Fiasco" I was done with the topic. Scientific essays published since then only served my very own interests. Oh well, and every text proved, that I was still alive. (laughs)
Is Technology itself in a crisis as well?
Very much so, yes! When you open the ‚National Herald’, you will literally be flooded with technical innovation. The only thing that seems to matter nowadays is that things get ever smaller. But at the same time, Nano-technology makes little sense in day to day life. We don't need all that!
Would you have a spontaneous idea for an invention that the world could actually need right now'?
Yes, one: I would love to block out all these television advertisements. Those are horrible! You see a catastrophe, an earthquake - then suddenly you hear a voice, which explains to you, with which toilet paper the bears wipe their butts clean. By all means! I don't like that. I feel, in a certain sense, informationally raped. But there is no cure for that.
And when seen globally? Any development, that would propel humankind forward as a whole'?
When it concerns humankind, I would prefer it to be silent. There is no humankind - there are only different populaces. Some of them explode demographically, while others are slowly over-aging and dying out. All together we bog down in this humanoid ocean. There are too many of us; at the mid of the century, there are projected to be already 9 billion.
Is that why you are interested in books like the ones over there, with the telling title: „Entering Space“?
No, I read those things because I find the topic emigration into space for one of the biggest meanderings of Modernity. The best what dear NASA has created till date is the glue that keeps the thermal protection shield of the space shuttle together (laughs sarcastic)
Why should humans even be interested to colonize planets like Mars - apart from the fact that we are predators at bottom of ourselves? Up there, that is some kind of Gulag! A terrible cold desert without air and water. Better to put some effort into getting a grip on terrestrial problems. Maybe there is still a little chance to stop before we, after the Mammoth and the Whale extirpate ourselves as well, though I have my doubts about that. Apparently we seem to like murdering. Human history resembles an ocean of blood, and that we now work on extending life expectancy by artificial means is the peak of mockery.
Do you think something like that would be feasible?
Whether it would be feasible, I can't say. I also think that to be irrelevant. To live forever would be counterproductive and immensely boring (steadfast). Do you like Halva?
Yes, actually. Why do you ask?
Do you want a hundred kilograms? No? There you see.
In one of your more recent writings to you proclaim the thesis that not the demographic, but the informational bomb, which according to you is in "full splinter throw", is the more dangerous one.
There are several floods, not just one. There is also a technological one. Every day there are new car models coming into the market - what for? I myself drive the same Mercedes since 25 years. Right there below the fireplace, five electric typewriters collect dust because I stubbornly still use my mechanical Remmington. If we are lucky, the ebbing of resources leads this spook to a natural end. And regarding the informational flood: Even if you manage somehow to separate the junk somewhat from the relevant information, the demand to absorb all that would be the same, as if you would try to dry up the Atlantic ocean with a teaspoon. Just today I received a new issue of the "Scientific American" and do I read there? "Gravitation is an illusion." According to the newest findings, there suddenly is no gravity anymore! (laughs). Luckily I have a secretary who does the preselection.
Already in 1996, you wrote allegorically: "I always hoped that the world would trend in the right direction, given the opportunity. Now I have lost this hope."
Because that's correct. Let me ask you: Has anything in the last 50 years turned for the better? Take for example diseases like cancer: For sure it has been declared defeated 100 times by the newspapers. Nothing but eye washing.
What are you afraid of more in the 21st century: the lookout of the window or the look into the internet?
Of the ordinary, normal world. In a word: Politics scare me. Blood and Thunder. The Internet is more to despair; a nuisance, if you ask me. That the so-called technological progress proceeds within the boundaries of evolution and is hence irreversible, is a fact. One can scrutinize, but not stop that. To believe that we, as a counter-argument, would be able to master everything would also be naive. Let me rephrase that: Who climbs a peak, only notices one thing with final certainty - namely, that all ways lead down.
You have verifiably for a long time denied using a computer, leave alone an internet-access. In how far are you using those components until now?
Dear God, not at all. I can't even switch on those things. My secretary does that for me.
What exactly do you mean with a sentence like: "Should hell exist, it would be computerized". The computer as it is is by itself is not a negative thing.
I was of course just kidding. The computer is nothing more than mechanical livestock. An electronic cow, that ruminates data (laughs). It is a tool, comparable to a hammer. An independent you can't expect, at least not a meaningful one. And you also cant preach it with morals.
In your books, you have extensively disseminated the question of artificial intelligence. Are you of the opinion that something like that could exist?
That is very simple: It is not there. At least not for the near future. What a guy like this Kurzweg writes in the ‚Scientific American’ – that in 20 years we will stand on the threshold of the fusion of technology and man's biologic nature - I consider complete nonsense. Intelligence is a fashionable term, that can be used at any time on anything. Even my suspenders are, if you want to, intelligent. After all, you can regulate them.
Can you define more closely the difference between intelligence and reason?
There we are again at the razor blade. The intelligence is the blade, reason wields it. It is the hand that determines in which direction the blade is pointing. And without this hand, the mightiest calculation power is not worth much. Writing, reading, the special art of thinking - all that lies in the unreachable distance. It is a sheer dream of electronic engineers. An automat can calculate you the most elegant train schedule, design a strategic war plan for the Pentagon or defeat you in a game of chess. It can act within the frame of confined, narrowly defined connections. On the task of giving a resume of a Grimms Tale in his own words it will fail. For that what is called 'formable intelligence' is required.
In other words: It would have to be able to learn. What exactly prevents an artificial intelligence to enter into the status of 'Generality and Formability'?
Well, that it doesn't possess sensory sensation. A brain that stops feeling degenerates. It will be extinguished. The whole fuss about these Japanese robotic dogs is complete nonsense. That is, as of now, better toys! A machine with humanlike intellectual abilities would have to have been a child. It would have to be able to fall in love and would have to, last but not least, possess humor.
But at least in rudiments there exist learning machines. At least in your essay "Ghost of the Machine" you yourself go as far as to explore the possibility of a globally distributed consciousness with the aid of linked computers - and to deem it potentially realizable.
Not to put too fine a point to it, in rudiments everything exists. Whether it will find continuation, is another question. Last but not least such type of research is immensely expensive. At any rate, the natural way is the easier one: You only have to copulate with a woman, and nine months later you have a child. A few months more, and you can watch a real, alive intelligence thrive and prosper. You won't be able to stop marveling then.
What we call 'Cyberspace' or 'Virtual Reality' nowadays, you have anticipated in the early 60's and called it 'Phantomatic'. What ails the from you so abhorred internet?
Its glut and its potential for addiction. My son reads no newspapers and hardly watches television anymore. Most of the time of day he spends coupled to the internet. I call that Internitis - a disease.
Due to the fact that it is some kind of narcotic, that diverts our attention from the relevant. And I know what I am talking about for I have been experimenting - many years ago and under medical supervision - experimented with psilocybin-containing mushrooms. Everything suddenly turned wonderful, but I didn't want to repeat that, because the sovereignty of my brain is holy to me. The thought that some chemical substance messes up perception, I didn't like that at all.
Another aspect that you diagnosed and extended to the virtual worlds built in computer games is the tendency to brutalization, an escalation of violence. In how far has this picture in the meantime been radicalized?
Indeed this danger is growing. Imagine this: A Japanese firm has recently asked me to write down my experiences with the Sowjet regime for them. When I wanted to know for which purpose, they revealed that it would serve for the development of a computer game. No joke! I wanted to deny at first, but at last, their very generous cheque had convinced me. (laughs) I guess, this is rather curious than defective, isn't it? The result was sent to me later, but I didn't want to see it.
Are such games killing imagination?
By trend, for sure. But do you know what I deem a much more horrible catastrophe? The "Harry Potter" Books! I have heard that from the four volumes so far there have been 200 million copies sold. An unbelievable insanity! This drivel about magical powers causes more damage in the heads of our children than most of the games. What do we need flying broomsticks and all that mumbo jumbo for? Only to escape into a fantasy world, instead of bothering ourselves with more meaningful thoughts.
That sounds a bit as if you were jealous.
No, by all means. But the incline by itself is rather depressing. Not one out of a hundred of those people has read Einstein's works.
Is that what you would describe with the Term "Ignorantism"?
(thinks) Excuse me, but I have forgotten that. 90 percent of what I have ever thought or written about is gone. Disappeared. That is only human. Even knowledge is perishable: Either it is forgotten or another more up-to-date theory refutes it.
Let's get back to your forecasts. Other developments you sometimes have seen decades before their appearances: Genetic- and Nanotechnology, cashless money transfer or Brainchips. You draft a world in which the smudging of information has grown to catastrophic proportions and where random noise is even used militarily.
That is indeed state of the art. A look into the 'Spiegel' suffices: From now on, Pirates, that attempt to capture a cruise liner, are attacked with Noise-Cannons. They will be routed with noise. There you go, there is your militarily used information smudge. Parallel to that the sheer flood of information is problematic. In other words: Knowledge itself curiously has turned into a problem. And whoever disarms this problem will be mighty.
According to this, you must think the whole 'Open Source' Movement around Projects like Wikipedia must be a huge pile of rubbish, isn't it?
Very harmful that is. Because most people are stupid, mentally limited. How will you filter the most intelligent and most creative thoughts out there? A program won't be able to do that. For that you would need to form a committee.
But for that the concept is democratic in the best sense.
Let us be honest: Democracy is fashionable for only one reason - because we haven't found anything better yet. Whether it will automatically lead to fewer conflicts, I doubt that.
The French philosopher Paul Virilio has for us only through absolute speed determined world coined the term "speeding standstill." One could also say Communication instead of reason.
Well, there you go.