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In Conversation with Carolyn Biltoft

Updated: Oct 23, 2022

How our addiction to screens affects our minds and threatens democracy.


The Geneva Observer's Philippe Mottaz talks to Carolyn Biltoft, Assistant Professor of international history at Geneva's Graduate Institute.

December 2, 2019

Carolyn Biltoft, assistant professor of international history at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.


Carolyn Biltoft is an assistant professor of international history in Geneva. Her office is at the top of Petal 2 of the "Maison de la Paix", the cluster of six buildings that houses The Graduate Institute, where she teaches. With its soft couch, wooden furniture, and its artwork on the wall, it feels like a welcoming den, a nicely subversive respite from the steel, concrete and glass trinity used by the Maison's modernist architects.

I wanted to follow up on an enlightening public lecture she recently gave on a historical perspective on "fake news". You can catch it here. But my interview organically veered back to the broader subject of her research, which she described as a fixation: "I am really obsessed with the ways of feeling and knowing, and how they interact with their environment. So it is a kind of evolutionary perspective on how truth evolves. As truth evolves, sentiments evolve, and the context evolves and they evolve together. So, I guess, it’s alchemy of a kind, like the alchemy of time and space and belief, and how that changes shape."

"Alternative facts", post-truth and distorted reality in the era of Trump and Brexit

Pressing the record button to tape my conversation with Carolyn Biltoft, it was hard not to think about the Brexit debate or the Trump impeachment hearings to find two perfect examples of completely distorted reality, where words and facts seem to have any and every meaning. "When I was young, my father left engineering to study theology and become a minister," says Carolyn Biltoft. "I was very skeptical and agnostic, and what I began to understand is that religious people use texts, so they argue internally with reference to specific sets of texts, some of them competing. But when they argue about the nature of reality, they refer back to their texts rather than to the world."

In our post-Gutenberg society, it is no longer texts that separate us from words, but screens. She summons the Apostle doubting Thomas , who wouldn’t believe what he could not see, or touch. Today, our screens serve as an ersatz for the experience. They make us believe. We have lost touch. She calls it the "dematerialization of the world". Technological developments, as the defining condition of our time, run through our conversation.

During our exchange, Carolyn Biltoft argues that the constant reward mechanisms built into our shiny seductive addiction machines are seriously warping our sense of identity, depriving us from building our inner lives. "Is your life well lived or is it well displayed?" asked poet-singer Kate Tempest during a recent concert at Geneva’s Alhambra concert hall. No spoilers here, but as you will hear, for Carolyn Biltoft, this is a central question with potentially dire political consequences for our democratic societies. The recording is here.

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