“For more than money good philosophy is needed”

DMEXCO is encouraging reflection on the business - Philosopher Dr. Brennan Jacoby about trust and giving meaning to work

Philosopher Dr. Brennan Jacoby
Philosopher Dr. Brennan Jacoby

With the motto “Trust in you” DMEXCO sets a clear and unambiguous sign. In the midst of stormy times in terms of technology development and markets, mutual trust is playing an increasingly important role. In addition, the self-confidence of people in the digital economy to face the challenges is an important prerequisite. “We want to encourage this,” says Judith Kühn, Director Conference and board member of DMEXCO. “It is important to us not only to convey the impulses, inspirations and practice-oriented knowledge on the two days of our event, but also to encourage reflection,” says Kühn.

“As a conference team, we are becoming more and more interested in ethical and philosophical topics. And we are noticing that industry trends are increasingly being scrutinized for their meaningfulness,” she adds. In her search for suitable speakers, she came across Dr. Brennan Jacoby. “With his impulses, he succeeds in linking the modern world with philosophy,” adds Judith.

Reason enough to ask the American philosopher, who now lives in England and works throughout Europe, a few questions.



We all remember the earliest European philosophers like Plato, the medieval ones like Meister Eckart, Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant as thinkers of the early modern period, and later Marx and Huxley. Very late the European people discovered the Asian ways of thinking like Buddhism or Daoism. What remains of you today? Are there visible traces of these pioneers? How has philosophy developed over the past centuries?

Dr. Brennan Jacoby: Yes, I would say, though, that there are more than traces today. If you go right back to the etymology of the term, ‘philosophy’ just means the love (philo) of wisdom (sophia). As a philosopher who works with executives from across industries, sectors and geographies, I find time and again the pursuit of wisdom to be central to practical work. We might call it ‘innovative problem solving’, ‘ideation’, ‘strategic decision making’ or ‘well-being at work’, but all those undertakings sit well under the umbrella of philosophy’s pursuit of wisdom. While I focus on helping people do their own good thinking rather than just sharing the history of philosophy with them, historical philosophers certainly remain relevant here too. For example, when Plato writes about enlightenment through his famous allegory of the cave, he talks about people’s perception of life as only one limited, shadowy, version of what is really real – an insight that I think has much to say about our current societal challenges around social media and echo-chambers. Whether you talk about Classical, Modern, Western or Eastern philosophers, we are really just talking about people who have recognised that making sense of life’s complexity is intrinsically valuable, rather than just an enabler of wealth or happiness, and that is something hugely relevant today. Wherever you have people hungry for more than money and pleasure, good philosophy is needed.

DMEXCO: What can philosophy achieve today under the sign of digitalization? Can and must it redefine the relationship between man and machine with regard to increasing automation and artificial intelligence?

Dr. Brennan Jacoby: Wrestling with questions about the human condition and the relation between personhood, our humanity and technology has long been a part of doing philosophy. However, where philosophers once hypothosized with thought experiments about artificial intelligence, we can now explore these things in more tangible ways. The great thing about philosophy is that it is prepared to let go of hypotheses that have been proven incorrect. So, if digitalization reveals something about what it means to be human that we didn’t know before this period in history, philosophers should welcome that revelation as a step toward greater understanding. For my part, I certainly think that our use of technology today is changing the experience of what it is like to be human, but I am less confident that that means it is fundamentally redefining us.

DMEXCO: What role does trust play in this context? Must we learn to trust digital technology more?

Dr. Brennan Jacoby: I would suggest that we should be careful anytime we feel we are in a position where we must trust. While trust has great benefits, it can be misplaced and too much trust enables abuse of power. I agree with Onora O’Neill who said that what we should aim for is well-placed trust and well-placed distrust. So, then, is trust in digital technology well-placed? My suggestion would be that as with trust in people, it depends. What we should be looking to establish is whether digital technology can be trustworthy, which is a big question. If having a goodwill toward trusters is a necessary condition of trustworthiness, then unless technology can have a will, it cannot be worthy of trust, and while I am not an expert in AI or machine learning, I think we are some way off from that. Instead, it is probably more helpful to talk about our reliance on digital technology and the extent to which technology is reliable or not.

DMEXCO: How will the definition of value creation change in the future? What will the society of the future look like? Which values will apply?

Dr. Brennan Jacoby: While philosophy sits at the intersection of descriptive facts about how the world is and normative values about how the world ought to be, it is, like all disciplines, limited in its ability to say what the future holds. That said, I would not be surprised if in future we saw an increased appreciation for anything of substance – that is, anything that feels lasting and grounding. In our time of fast access to information and seeming flexibility of everything from politics and social norms to employment practices, as humans we still have brains that like order and closure. That means we have an appetite for meaning and what could be called sense-making. And in our knowledge economy, the ability to make sense of information is highly valuable. So, in future, I would not be surprised to see value placed on substance over speed.

DMEXCO: Will people in politics and business have to redefine their relationship with each other with the first threatening signs of the increasing climate crisis?

Dr. Brennan Jacoby: Yes.

DMEXCO: What contribution does philosophy make to ethical principles in business today?

Dr. Brennan Jacoby: Here again we need a distinction: Much of what is called ‘ethical principles’ in business, as in other parts of life, is best understood as morality. In contrast to morality, which is a given way of understanding what is good and bad or right and wrong, ethics critiques morality so that the principles that make up the morality of a person, family, business or nation is as well-formed as possible. Today, we have a lot of moralities in business, we don’t have nearly enough ethics. Philosophy is perfectly placed to ‘stand back’ and test the quality of a firm’s morality, which might consist of its culture, values, aims and practices, so that the business is not only moral according to a set of principles it has chosen, but ethical on a deeper level.

DMEXCO: The term “giving meaning to work” is increasingly shaping the relationship between employers and employees, albeit controversially. Is there a need for this new sense of purpose? To what extent does digitalisation contribute to this; does it disturb or help?

Dr. Brennan Jacoby: I think the controversy around ‘giving meaning to work’ is that it can feel like we are trying to make jobs more than what they are. Sceptics might wonder whether our work needs to be meaningful in any deep sense all the time, and I am sympathetic to that. When I process my travel receipts at the end of the week, I don’t need that to be meaningful, I just need it to be done. But I don’t think that is really what proponents of meaningful work really have in mind. In the middle, between the absence of meaning, and the pursuit of meaning in everything, sits what I think is an understanding of meaningful work that most of us would probably like to achieve: We simply want to know that we have not wasted our lives. We may not need every moment of every day at work to be rich with purpose, but we don’t want to look back and think we could have done better. In this regard, digitalisation is not unique in its impact of work. The digital revolution has enabled people to do work that is, on the whole, more meaningful for them, while it has done the opposite for others, I presume. But we could say the same for revolutions in agriculture, finance and medicine to name a few. What matters is that we are able to reflect and think well about how our work is impacting on us and others – but then you might expect a philosopher to say that!