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Translation by AB – April 15, 2020
In the “bush”
Puissance & Raison is a collection of posts about our new digital world, an “experience” of total questioning about it.
Let us say at the outset, we are living in a metamorphosis from which many traffickers of ideas profit: technophiles without ethics, without limits, without imagination, and who therefore offer us a future only extrapolated; or anxious and shallow technophobes, who predict the apocalypse from their (still) comfortable lookout by forgetting a good half of miserable earthlings very far from the “throes” of digitalization.
Between the two our hearts do not swing because there is no in-between. So where to go? Or rather “où atterrir ?” (“where to land?”) as the French philosopher Bruno Latour says it much better? Hope for correct answers, clear everything, never prevent yourself, think freely… provided you adopt a rule of conduct which can constitute a kind of “zero-ethics”: seek to understand, dig with your nails, it is so necessary, and fill the hole if you have misunderstood.
Here are now some ways to penetrate this dark and thick bush seen from the ground. Here is, in a way, the first page of this (cyber) notebook.
The information processing artifacts synchronize massively and draw a global environment: the “Technological System“, to use Jacques Ellul’s concept, physically resonates. As symptoms of this phenomenon, let us evoke for example the massive deployment of autonomous and / or connected objects, the extraordinary momentum of artificial intelligence, the astonishing triumph of neuroscientific reductionism in the field of political determination (Dehaene, Houdé & co), etc.
We all live, to varying degrees, through the prism of our singular lives, the feeling that something is happening, which a posteriori we can qualify as a historical transition, which we will probably recognize as the end of the “Age of Enlightenment” and of “Reason” as the propeller of progress. There will be a before and after this massive technological resonance.
In any case, and this is completely unheard of, this upheaval is proposed to us (essentially by its own actors and commentators) as a conjunction of immense technological advances when it is mainly a question of a quantitative progress, of a progress of power and “zoom effects”, such as highlighting an emotion neuron by neuron until the mystery is completely extinguished and we remain with the contemplation … of emptiness, recognition of a face atom by atom until its systematic identification, second by second, the passage from a pixelated world to artificiality still detectable to a world in 4K, 8K, in 3D … which then presents all the appearances of a reality.
It is very strange but no mathematical, physical, biological or cognitive revolution underlies the breaks in progress. It is more like a reconfiguration or a phase change of a material already there, a change that physics might be better able to describe than economics, sociology or demography. We must then give all the appearances of a radical change to what are only extrapolations or associations, certainly surprising, magical, clever, daring … (like sending a car into space, what a progress … of marketing: an eternal clip!)
Are we then living a sort of false conclusion, like at the end of 19th century this provisional scientific “end of history”? Or are we at the dawn of a new Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian decentering?
Le résultat de cette mise en réseau massive est le développement d’un nouveau milieu pour l’homme. Il n’y a là rien de bien nouveau. Cela a toujours été le cas, mais ce phénomène s’est amplifié depuis la généralisation des « grandes machines » au XIXème et au XXème siècle (les usines, les réseaux ferrés puis électriques, les routes…). Ces machines ont jusqu’à présent pris place dans un cadre naturel et encore sauvage. Il fut possible de voir, ici et maintenant, le changement (et la dégradation) de l’environnement. Il fut possible de contempler le monde technique depuis la nature et par conséquent, pour tout un chacun, de parler du monde technique et de ses mé/bien-faits.
It has now become difficult to envisage as an foreign object what has become our new environment, mainly urban (smart city), or even more: this machine or system of which we become the components, digitized, traced but above all functionalized.
How to (re) constitute a point of view and therefore a critical posture and a capacity of control? Where is the art, whose essential function is to produce the necessary perspectives and our “pre-concepts”? Is it possible to create maps, to invent a new geography that is not as flattening and disappointing either as our drone views? Etc.
Matter resists to these virtualizing metamorphoses (in the sense of a counter-thrust) and reminds us that it exists, in the last instance. Whether it’s our planet, our territories and, of course, our bodies, everything creaks, so to speak. Matter is indeed the main horizon and limit of our “progress”. This pitfall is well considered by those who want to transhumanize us (or at least increase us), and plan to compact us into digits or send us on planet Mars.
It is also a topic well apprehended by some pioneers of artificial intelligence, who quickly realized that there is no intelligence (in the strong sense) without matter, that it must be embodied. If there is no body between two concepts, then there is only a void where “intelligence” evaporates.
How does the Technological System plan to embody its artificial intelligences? How do our own bodies will resist? How will resist the ordinary matter necessary for the digital world?
Talking about all this but above all mastering it requires a language and concepts which we do not yet have. It’s quite fascinating: the changes are so rapid that our lexicon is struggling to keep up. Even the verbs “to be” or “to become” staggers (“Tay quickly became racist, misogynist and conspiratorial” as a French newspaper declared in 2016 when referring to Microsoft’s AI).
In the meantime, a “linguistic war” of an unprecedented scale is playing out, the first battles of which have obviously been won by the most powerful speakers, journalists with easy tickets, influential “gurus”, uninhibited sophists, populists … It suffices to observe the fate categories of “truth”, “life”, “work”, “universal”…
Our times thus conveys its injunctions through language, which therefore becomes the language of “change management”, of “change”, so young and already dated: agility, disruption, experience, innovation, individualization … So, language becomes politicized and our concepts suffer a “phase change”. Intelligence is no longer what it used to be, but becomes a graduated attribute on a Richter scale of everything that “moves”: plants, animals, humans, machines (every element of the system now benefits from presumption of intelligence or even sensitivity). The philosophy of the mind itself seems to have lost its bearings since we had the tools to test it, that is to say since the 1980s: it was ahead, escaping any requirement for proof, it is now running behind the short breath
What, then, will be the elements of language and the concepts that will allow us to (re) take an ethical-political approach? Who will invent and carry them?
If in the beginning before was the verb, in the beginning now is the number. This is why, even if the argument is weak and mathematics is the new fundamental sciences (don’t trade math for coding!).
Everything becomes measurable and therefore commensurable (our digital identity is worth what any measure is worth).
And measuring and comparing is the basis of economic exchange. If before it was always necessary to go through the currency (an extraordinary progress, because the currency was the first tool of universal commensuration), the “digital” number is now the universal currency and produces the same effects of concentration. It produces incredible aggregates and therefore massive inequalities.
This numerical relativity is, at least apparently, rational: it is based on mathematically organized numbers and can therefore theoretically account for it. But this is practically illusory: the global power / zoom effect makes these numbers as ghostly and nanometric as atoms: we only perceive the emerging qualities, that is to say a digital reality which does not make more account that the “natural reality”.
The power of machines and algorithms now allows us to manage our “numbers” in real time in an individualized bubble. Each of us is measured, recognized, considered at its fair value: each of us is unique! But this paradoxically requires perfect, indifferent equality in front of algorithms (as in front of the world). The singularity of the ego is dissolved because there is no longer a place (even less digital) where to hide: individualization equals radical transparency equals sensors everywhere.
At the moment when the Technological System enters into resonance and conquers man, when our language is trapped, or when the philosophy which would allow its capture has given up any radical critic … the following question insists: then, what remains inalienably human within us? Wouldn’t it be, at least, something like our feeling of freedom? If so, will we continue to bear this feeling? Shall we not consent to his disappearance?
It is perhaps there, the ultimate progress (at least if it is true that there is “nobody” in Nirvana): our own dissolution.