The Unreliable Narrator
A subtle yet sharp collection of essays, columns and lectures by the winner of the 2020 P.C. Hooft Prize
Sharp, erudite, playful and funny: these are the words often used to describe the work by judicial philosopher Maxim Februari. He is without a doubt the most original essayist in the Dutch language. This year he was awarded the Netherlands’ greatest literary prize, the P.C. Hooft Prize. In this collection of lucid and thought-provoking meditations, Februari takes on big, contemporary questions such as digitalization, moral responsibility and the rule of law with subtle humor and musical prose.
With a keen eye for the peculiarities of everyday life, Februari nimbly pokes holes in our convictions and continuously reminds us of the human in the digital machine. At a time when businesses would love nothing more than to reduce us to valuable datapoints and algorithms promise to relieve us of decision making, Februari delivers tech criticism at its finest: erudite and frightening. The blind belief in technological progress is a thorn in his side, and he convincingly spotlights the darker possibilities and uncertainties offered by today’s technology, especially to business leaders and policymakers. What happens, for example, when the laws and rules are digitally integrated into the software behind stoplights and search engines? What does that mean for our legal system?
And while he addresses big topics, there is always a personal element in Februari’s work. Februari argues for maintaining the human dimension in our decisions, emphasizing the importance of interpretation and understanding: ‘It can’t hurt to reflect for a moment on the transition from writing to calculation.’ Human decisions made with compassion will always be fairer than what any self-learning algorithm can offer us. Because even algorithms need to be directed: ‘Who, for example, designs the risk models and who decides the criteria for risk reporting?’ asks Februari. ‘Fortunately, I have a respectable skin tone, and a respectable post code, so I suspect I can safely continue committing fraud, you won’t hear me complaining. But what does the equality principle think of that?’
The cautionary tone and the activist element in Februari’s work will remind readers of contemporary thinkers like Naomi Klein and Evgeny Morozov. However, it is Februari’s extremely literary and utterly direct, appealing style that, with regards to originality, could better be compared to that of Rachel Cusk or Julian Barnes. Grouped broadly into five sections, these short pieces dance from the urgent physical concerns of our digital age to the datafication of human existence, from the dangerous power of multinational tech companies to the importance of art and literature today. Februari assures us there is hope for the future. It’s for us to decide — preferably with courage, trust and some enjoyment.