Safety Curtain 2023/2024

Stanislaw Lem in conversation

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: I have questions on different thematic complexes, including the aspect of interdisciplinarity. But first, I’d like to know about your current activities.

Stanislaw Lem: This afternoon, I finished making the final edits to a typescript about a book I published in 1963. In this 130-page document, I review my then-made prognoses from a contemporary perspective. Generally, my predictions have proven right: Virtual Reality, the Internet, etc. Prior to that, I have written two critical books about the Internet. And at the moment, I am bombarded with requests from British and German newspapers. They all ask for my opinion on the developments in the new Millennium. I remain evasive and I never make political prognoses. Nobody can tell what the Russian military forces will do, for instance. The situation is very unstable: we are on a big turntable. When I first became interested in studying the future, I was alone in a desert. I had no reviews, and nobody could comprehend my books. Today, it seems that everybody knows what the future will bring us. However, I remain skeptical about many of these prognoses, such as the idea that we can achieve human immortality; I think it is a fairy tale. I would also like to address another point you raised – interdisciplinarity. This is particularly relevant in the context of futurology, as it requires collaboration between various disciplines.

HUO: In this context, I would be very interested to know your opinion on Ilya Prigogine’s theory regarding the unpredictability of the behavior of complex dynamic systems.

SL: Like I mentioned, nobody can tell what the political future will be like. Neither can Ilya Prigogine nor the members of the CIA or of the Politburo. You can only make hypotheses. Everybody talks a lot, but does very little. I’d rather engage more solid branches of science. There, a lot is going on. But no human being, regardless of how genius he or she is, can really oversee what is really taking place in research areas such as biology and physics. In both disciplines, new discoveries are being made constantly. One of the reasons is the incredibly increasing number of scientists working in these fields. And it’s a matter of knowledge: to work in genetics, for instance, you have to know theoretical physics.

HUO: According to you, what have been the most significant accomplishments in science recently?

SL: We have a general prostitution in science. Let me explain. Since no one has yet accomplished to construct artificial intelligence, potentially useful products are being replaced by what I believe are useless offerings, such as electronic cats or dogs. That is the ersatz for the things one cannot do. To me, the second problem is the useless intrusion of philosophers and psychologists into the field. While the former foresee an era of artificial intelligence, the latter consider it impossible. However, I do follow one trend, which attempts to simulate human thought with the help of several computer programs. This is a promising direction and you sense that it is backed by large capital. Capital behaves like water. It flows towards profit.

HUO: As an observer, how do you get a hold on this enormous amount of information? What publications do you frequently read?

SL: I primarily read magazines like Science, Nature, and American Scientist. However, I rely on personal contacts with scientists who guide me on where to look out and what to look for. As far as science is concerned, it is obvious that we know very little. Furthermore, there are ethical and moral, as well as technocratic problems. The legislature only slowly follows the progress of knowledge. And we don’t have moral statutes or well-defined ethics. Nobody knows if the human body can be used as a repository for replacement parts or not. The same holds true for the use of researched genes; a lot is still unclear.

HUO: I would also like to know how you felt about Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1971 film adaptation of your novel Solaris (1961). Had you met Tarkovsky before the film’s production?

SL: We met often when I was in Moscow. Actually, I am not the least bit interested in films or cinema. I don’t have time to watch movies.

This conversation took place in Krakow in 1999.