Pekka Himanen
Date and place of birth:
19 October 1973, Helsinki.
Place of residence:
Helsinki, but much of the year abroad.
As a child I wanted to be…
a computer programmer, I was into that for a good while.
I hope…
for a dignified life.
I love…
life as a work of art.
In five years I will…
hopefully have walked farther on the inner journey.

Philosopher celebrity Pekka Himanen wrote a roadmap for Finland’s future prosperity. Now what are we supposed to do with it?

PEKKA HIMANEN leaves no one cold. The one-time wunderkind PhD-at-20 has spun out books on the information society that have been translated into 20 languages. He hangs out with global luminaries from Nobel laureates to rock stars, discussing what’s going on in the world. Last year, government big-shots asked him to write a book about how Finland can prosper in the new decade. His report, entitled Kukoistuksen käsikirjoitus (“Manuscript for flourishing”), was published 10 March and promptly created a heated debate that still rages.

Himanen envisions a green economy, a society of mental well-being, freer immigration and appreciation of multiculturalism especially through major investment in the arts, all founded on his vision of the intrinsic dignity of life. He draws fire from all over, often from people who haven’t read a word who go on vein-bulging rants about a professor of gobbledygook and his new book of double-speak for the elite to smokescreen us with.

SixDegrees met with the professor to hear it straight from the man himself.

Does a philosopher need a beard?

Well, let’s say you can pass for one without it. For example, when I did my PhD as a 20-year-old I didn’t have a beard yet. In the end it’s an external feature. People have images of bearded wise men but many philosophers in recent history didn’t have one. There’s a camp of beardless philosophers, too!

You preface Kukoistuksen käsikirjoitus with a quote from an eight-year-old boy: “Are we a live broadcast or a recording?” What does this mean to you?

Actually it’s a surprisingly profound question. Firstly, I’ve been truly inspired by these children’s philosophy groups I’ve run. For a philosophy of life this question means, am I living fully right now or am I living, for example, in the past. Who has written the script of my life? Are you playing a role written by your parents, teachers and friends or are you taking responsibility for the story of your life and considering your life as a work of art? It’s a surprising and startling question, which is philosophy at its best.

How do these questions relate to the idea of a dignified life, which is at the heart of your book?

Writing the story of one’s life, deciding who we live our lives for and the way of taking an artist’s responsibility for our lives – these can only happen in this moment, right now. There is no other moment. The same goes for making the world we share a more beautiful work of art, which happens through appreciation of one another. A dignified life also means living life not as a commodity but as something meaningful and where you not only get, but also give. It’s not about living to the full, in the sense of grabbing all you can at a closeout sale. Nor is it about living your life as a package holiday, so that you can say on your deathbed “two weeks was a bit long, one week’s not enough, a week and a half would have been perfect.” So the whole picture would be to live fully now, while attuned to a future and supported by a past, not that they’re completely non-existent.

Talk about dignified life can sound like wishful thinking in the harsh economic realities of the world. Does happiness mean settling for your lot or should we actively question why we’re unhappy?

I don’t think it’s unrealistic – I promote the goal of a dignified life for ethical reasons. The answer here is twofold: we do have to question present structures that cause suffering and actively work for a dignified life, but we also have to live in the now, refusing to give power to outside factors to determine our happiness. Of course a person can feel happy in the now almost anywhere – I mean, that’s a fact, I’ve been in shanty town schools in poor countries and seen so much happiness and joy, but I wouldn’t overemphasise that so it doesn’t become an excuse not to take action.

Positive thinking is often not well-received in Finland – it seems to create a credibility problem.

Well first of all, I’m very critical in my analysis. It’s a demanding vision, tackling environmental problems, the welfare gap and cultural conflicts. The book presents an enormous task, but not just in terms of what’s wrong. It tries to build on what could be done. I don’t find it terribly interesting in the end to just list things you’re against, to hear what someone doesn’t think. Okay, so you don’t think that, but why not tell me what you do think? In Finland we have this problem of confusing cynicism with critical thinking – cynicism and negativity pass for critical thinking and profundity, so the more cynical you are the more profound. I disagree completely. It’s just such paltry thinking it probably doesn’t even deserve to be called thinking. It’s so easy to say no to everything. Finally, it’s not correct to say I stand for positivity. I stand for seeing the world as it is and then doing what we can to make it better.

How should this goal of a dignified life affect the culture of learning?

This is a key question. First of all you can ask who of your teachers have remained most profoundly in your mind. We all value teachers who convey information and certain skills well, but when I thought about this I remembered most clearly the teachers who were able to operate in this dimension of true appreciation, who made possible that miracle of enriching interaction, when people help one another to excel. I experienced this with my philosophical mentors at the University of Helsinki. I’ve talked about the story behind HIM’s success with Ville Valo and the same elements have been present there as well.

Renaissances have always been multicultural affairs. What’s the role of multiculturalism in your vision of a newly flowering Finland?

We see this when we look at any of these historical centres of flourishing – in ancient Athens a third of the population had been born elsewhere. Of the most famous philosophers only Socrates and Plato were Athenians, the rest came from elsewhere. Rich cultural interaction has been essential to these centres of flowering. Florence was also a very easy place to enter. If we take the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where the model of the atom and later the structure of DNA were discovered, they’ve had 37 Nobel laureates, half of whom moved there from other places. It’s the same in Silicon Valley where half of the engineers and company founders, like Google’s Sergey Bryn or Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, are foreign-born. In Finland we could have the same kind of brain circulation, where we train people here who first work here and then perhaps go back home to found companies, but maintain that connection to Finland. This would be a scenario where everyone wins.

How could we learn to appreciate multiculturalism in Finland?

We need to get rid of what I call the “bouncer mentality.” Finland right now is like a bouncer at the door, whose main intention is to stop anyone from getting into the restaurant. I don’t think it’s a sign of a very good establishment. The challenge at the moment is that it’s politically difficult to allow more immigration when unemployment is surpassing ten per cent. But actually the way things are going this will change quite quickly. Many people in Finland are about to retire. Large age groups are leaving the workforce, so we’ll actually need at least 20,000 more immigrants a year throughout the new decade to sustain the so-called welfare equation: the amount of people working to keep the welfare society running. For Finland it’s actually indispensable.

You write that it’s important to invest in the arts. Why? Do you mean investing in arts on a professional level or for everyone?

Of course arts make it possible for a person to express themselves in some way, which is terribly valuable. Arts should be strengthened in schools, so yes, I mean for everyone. In the book I write about a broader flowering of the arts. Finland has had great success in the field of classical music, but the problem is that successful musicians are not attracted to contribute back to Finland. Thus we’re not able to support the producer-manager networks for the next generation. It’s the same with pop music, where we have bands like HIM, Apocalyptica, Rasmus and Nightwish. Although these people want to give something back by founding studios, discovering new bands and helping them get ahead through their contacts, Finland is, in a way, pushing them away. Our tax system doesn’t support creativity. You can be an entrepreneur in almost any field – in music a good chunk of your income comes from copyrights – except in the arts. These factors are preventing the build-up of the necessary capital, so we’re not seeing the next wave.

You write about depression as a national Finnish problem, even crisis. One in five people here suffer from some form of mental illness. What are the roots of this problem?

This is a really broad question for which there’s no simple answer. In Finland we have a kind of paradoxical minority identity, even though we’re a majority in our own country. We have a history of being dominated by other countries for nine centuries and still possess this defensive underdog identity, which has shaped our mental landscape. There are probably other factors as well, but we also have to remember that depression is not just a Finnish thing. It’s becoming the second most common illness worldwide and by the year 2030, in many countries, one in five people will at some point come down with depression. At the very least something in our western way of life has gone amiss. It’s also partly related to our economic growth and work culture, which have come to dominate our lives as ends when they should really be means for realising other values.

What are your main suggestions to policy-makers?

We have to think what the goal of development is, which is dignified life, and realise that in our time it will mean succeeding on three points: transition to a green economy; a new version of the welfare society, where the issues of well-being and lifestyle are prominent; and a rich, multicultural life. We need to learn to see what we have in common. In my experience there are at least two things that people all over the world share: they all have a basic hope that their dignity as human beings is recognised and appreciated, and they all love their children and want them to have this same hope fulfilled. So we should see that there’s much more that unites us than divides us. Geneticists are saying that we have 99 or more per cent of the same genes, so that’s what we should focus on rather than the less than one per cent that divides us. We are all Africans with just different skin colours.

Aleksis Toro