Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
I was born in the high mountains of Switzerland as the son of a preacher and a teacher. I grew up close to Zurich where I studied Swiss Typography. I founded my first company by twenty, which went terribly wrong, moved out of Switzerland to work in a couple of different countries for a while, sometimes for companies, sometimes to volunteer, before coming back to Zurich, where I live now.
Back in Zurich I have founded a company called Etter Studio. The strategy is to stay small, work interdisciplinary, and create work which is sustainable from a commercial point of view, and if possible, make the world a tiny bit better at the same time. We work for global brands, such as Hermès, Puma, IBM, The Economist, and so on, but also for NGOs, scientific and governmental institutions. Lately we have started to create our own products, most notably with the iPad game Drei (https://etter.co/drei/), which seems to capture the spirit of the age. [Editor’s Note: Drei is a game that unites complete strangers from around the globe to collaboratively solve physics-based puzzles.]
What did you think of Vandana Singh’s story “Entanglement”? What did you like about it?
It’s baffling how two people who have never met can share very similar opinions about the world. I feel that I’m on the same wavelength with the author, Vandana Singh. But then again, if you believe that everything’s connected that’s not so surprising.
I liked many things, particularly the beginning and the ending. The beginning because I’m a sucker for anything that has to do with science and boats. I could just feel the mood that she described, drinking coffee on the deck, that subtle banging of the scientific tools hanging on the wall, following her thoughts, the rough and cold sea around her…lovely! The end, because I like the idea of a software that connects the global community at a very personal level.
Is there anything that you would change about the story?
I believe that stories like “Entanglement” are a very powerful tool to address climate change, because they share knowledge in an unpretentious and entertaining way. For me, the evidence of climate change was a bit too dense. I’d have moved the focus more onto the story and used it as ‘Trojan Horse’ to address climate change. Sometimes, while reading, it felt like it was the other way around.
Scientifically it’s incredibly sound. It’s clear that the author owns the topic; her story describes the complexity and the important nodes of the climate change issue. The only thing that I was missing was mentioning hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), which I believe are greatly underestimated in their impact on the global climate and deserve more attention. Also, there are simple and cheaper solutions to replace them.
What elements of “Entanglement” remind you of things that are happening in your field, or things that might happen soon?
I can’t see anything that isn’t true. My expertise is with technology, and technically it would be possible today to turn “genies” and the “Million Eyes Project” into reality. There would be some questions of privacy and security, but technically I don’t see a problem. Even real-time translation technology has had a big breakthrough in the last year .
What technical or research questions relevant to your work does this story raise?
The question is more on the user side. In the story, interactions through this “genie” device were always very positive, connecting the right people at the right time. If you have ever used Chatroulette, which also connects complete strangers randomly via webcam, you know that we humans are far from perfect. There is a lot of boredom and nudity…and so forth. To create a positive experience you would need to do a lot of tinkering on the algorithm that decides which people should be connected when. This would involve many, many, many days of testing with as many random people as possible and analysis of why some people match and some don’t.
To make computers understand human emotions, moods and characteristics is an incredibly interesting field at the moment; that’s why pretty much all major tech companies are researching heavily in this field.
How does the story inspire you? Does it open up new questions or directions for your work?
The problem that humanity faces today is entirely new and hasn’t existed in our entire history. Previously, if a community chopped down all trees in their forest, they quickly saw and felt the consequences and they had to act (this happened so in Zurich a few hundred years ago).
Now it’s different. I eat a steak, which comes from a cow, the cow comes from, let’s say, Poland, where it has eaten loads of crops grown in Brazil, which means a forest had to be chopped down (or burned down), and that’s why a family in Bangladesh has lost their simple house to the floods because of the CO2 emissions created by my steak! It’s hard to see these connections and impossible to prove the precise causal links. To understand these new complexities, we need a new human consciousness. To understand that our actions have consequences, even though they are disconnected in time and space. This is also what we try to address in our work whenever we have the opportunity.
If there is one idea from “Entanglement” that you could make real today, what would it be?
Oh, I would love these methane eating bacteria – that would be a real treat!
Christian Etter is the founder of Etter Studio, an interdisciplinary firm in Zurich, Switzerland. His company specializes in projects combining technology and creativity, often with a scientific background.