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Vargas Llosa: Technology Is Killing The Very Idea Of Culture

Just before last week's death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, El Espectador spoke with arguably the only other Latin American author in his league, 2010 Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.

Vargas Llosa in 2011
Vargas Llosa in 2011
Nelson Fredy Padilla Castro

LIMA — It is no small feat to manage to interview Mario Vargas Llosa. I was put on a waiting list in 2009 when I first contacted his assistant Fiorella Battistini, saying I wanted to discuss the importance of theater in his novels. He seemed to become even less accessible after 2010 when he won the Nobel Prize for literature. "I am asked for so many interviews I'd have to devote my entire life to them," he says.

But I'd finally scored the prized opportunity to speak with the 78-year-old, with the interview taking place on April 11 as Vargas Llosa was preparing to head the Peruvian delegation to the Bogotá Book Fair later this month.

(It would turn out to be just one week before the death of fellow South American literary legend Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The two used to be friends until a falling out in the 1970s that included a fist fight. Vargas Llosa brushed off a question during the interview about Garcia Marquez, but after the Colombian's death, he said: "a great writer has died.")

We spoke on the sixth floor of his residence in Lima, with views onto the grey expanse of the Pacific Ocean. He spends summers on this arid coastline, and the rest of the year in Madrid, London or New York. Politically, he hovers between center and right: he has backed the policies of Peru's centrist President Ollanta Humala and promoted the presidential aspirations of the First Lady Nadine Heredia as his fitting successor. He has spoken in favor of a proposed law to allow civil union between homosexuals and another to decriminalize abortion in Peru, and welcomed the legalization of marijuana in Uruguay.

When Vargas Llosa speaks, he is heard, both here and throughout Latin America. Colombia is of particular interest to him, as is Venezuela.

EL ESPECTADOR: What have all the many revolutions done for Latin America?
VARGAS LLOSA: The revolutions have left us with many dead, injured, a lot of poverty. They have quite notably delayed the modernization process, and unfortunately left us with a residue of grudges and buried violence. All this has delayed, but not impeded the democratic culture finally taking root. I think the process is today a reality in Latin America. It is defficient because we are still dragging with us reminiscences of the time when people thought you could bring social justice with bullets, guerrillas, bombs, terrorism and kidnapping. Today the problems are of another kind. In a country like Colombia I have the impression that the problem is much less political and more to do with artificial interests present there, which use the guerrilla and ideological vocabulary when all there is behind them are mafia groups, cartels and drug trafficking.

Don't you think there has been an evident increase in the gap between the rich and the poor? One only has to go the edges of cities like Lima or Bogotá.
No. I don't think that is true. Let's say there are great inequalities, but the central fact about Latin America is not that, but the growth of the middle classes. There may be inequalities but in a positive, not negative sense, because there is more wealth. In Peru's case, the popular classes may be proving themselves more dynamic in creating firms and jobs than the prosperous sector. That explains our countries' relative stability now compared to the past.

How do you see the peace process undertaken by the government of President Juan Manuel Santos with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in Cuba?
I see behind these talks the search for a more or less honorable solution, though personally I have quite a few doubts about their successful outcome. Now if it does arrive and means the guerrillas' surrender, it's welcome. Who believes in the Cuban model these days? Cuba itself is looking for more discreet ways of not being Cuba.

Your essay the Civilization of the Spectacle captures the cultural reality we live in now, but it leaves one the impression of your defending the status of an intellectual aristocracy against the mass culture that has become popular through the Internet say, or social networking websites. Why?
There are people who believe that the great audio-visual revolution of our time is for the first time creating a democratic culture. I do not think that is true; what has created this phenomenon is information reaching everyone for the first time, or reaching a formerly inconceivable number of people. I accept this and believe there are many positive elements, like the increasing difficulty of imposing censorship. Technology dynamites censorship systems, and that is very positive. But it is a mistake to confuse culture with information. Culture was always and will always be elitist.

Hierarchies and differentiation of specialized areas are disappearing and there is an idea today that everything is culture, or nothing is culture. This has created an enormous confusion that is depriving culture of its natural function, which was to create critical and dissatisfied citizens who would not let themselves be manipulated. There is a passivity and conformism now derived from this hugely idealized technology as a cultural pseudo-product. And I think that has serious consequences for society, liberty and democracy. If culture becomes entertainment and starts to compete with soap operas or the circus, I think that Orwell's nightmare may start to materialize, with a world filled with top specialists and highly informed but soulless individuals being manipulated by powers that control technology. A supposed scientific revolution that could take us toward dictatorship.

Gao Xingjian, China's first Nobel Prize winner, recently declared at the Bilbao Festival of Letters that our current crisis is not just economic and financial crisis but also social and intellectual, because we have become stuck in the ideologies of the 20th century. He said intellectuals from across the world should set in motion a new way of thinking, or new Renaissance. What should the premises of this 21st Renaissance be?
In this extraordinarily changed world, liberty is at the end an essential protagonist of peaceful coexistence. We do not have a clear idea of the effects of this technological revolution that comes with the collapse of all values and beliefs. We no longer know what is good and what is bad, what is beautiful or ugly. These categories are no longer accepted in the great cultural centers. Relativism is so generalized now that humanity's greatest conquest, liberty, could unexpectedly begin to disappear. We face the possibilty of a revival of the authoritarian and totalitarian tradition, but in its modern manifestation, the collapse of what culture has achieved throughout history.

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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