Understanding our digital environment is the very condition of our freedom
This interview was originally published in French. Click here to access the original link.
Why is it so difficult to understand the digital technologies that surround us?
Pierre-Antoine Chardel: Taking the time to understand the systems and question them is in contradiction with the time and speed of deployment of digital technologies. We are thus rather fascinated by them, and so we do not question them. It's as if we are stunned by the light of our screens and see nothing else. This effect of capturing the attention of screens was described by Barjavel, whose text on television, Le cinéma total, was adapted for the cinema in 1947 in the film La télévision œil de demain. He imagined a future where people would be permanently caught up in portable televisions that would capture their attention and turn their social and intimate lives upside down, public and private spaces, etc. He had anticipated our connected cell phones, fifty years before their release!
Secondly, although digital technology promised to make it easier for users to produce information, not just receive it as with television and radio, in reality we are rather saturated with information and data. We do not exercise our power to produce meaning; we become mere spectators of information shaped and written for us, and therefore biased.
Finally, we never encounter technology alone but with discursive regimes that support and legitimise it. Think of the security discourse that advocates ubiquitous surveillance, for example. Demonstrating discernment then requires critical and reflective work that is all the more important.
Why is good judgment so important with digital technologies?
P.-A. C.: With digital technology, one of the risks is to be stuck in what I call an informational jar. Like fish in a bowl, we are always sent back to our own digital reflection: our tastes, our data, etc. to the point of blocking our becoming other. In the book Les identités numériques en tension (Digital identities in tension) written with Armen Khatchatourov, this is explained: individuals are constructed - individuated or subjectivised - through the experience of otherness and difference. The other enriches me and releases my own creative emotion. But with digital technology, we tend to see only our own reflection. It is very narcissistic, it is reassuring... and yet it can lead to a dizzying loss of meaning for the individual.
On the other hand, what flatters the ego also allows for some form of social recognition, which is necessary to some extent. This is what Serge Tisseron explains: seeking the approval of others is important in building oneself. We must not oppose the two but rather define limits beyond which the demand for recognition via social networks becomes instinctual. In this sense, we must distinguish the necessary search for recognition from the contingent compulsion to communicate at all times.
Hyperconnection is both helpful and disorienting, what do you think?
P.-A. C.: It's ambiguous and subtle. As we have seen, social networks allow for a staging of the self that can become quite compulsive and total. All spaces - private, public, intimate - are likely to be staged. Giving others a glimpse of oneself therefore also means being seen all the time. And yet, networks and screens, in that they mediate our relationship with the world, expose us on the one hand but also protect us on the other. It is indeed a difference that intervenes between communicative action and tele-communicative action.
In "TV", there is the distance that protects us as much as it makes us vulnerable. The screen acts as a screen, it allows us to see the world from our sofa; it gives us access to the world as much as it separates us from it. This idea joins the analyses of Günther Anders who proposed a phenomenology of the mass media of his time, in 1956: radio and television. Already, he identified the fact that these media offered a secure relationship with the world. The world is within reach but in a way that protects us, without being in the risk of confrontation with the other. This mode of communication does not carry with it the risk of destabilization specific to interlocution. As Levinas says "The other always bothers me". Each interaction is likely to be trying, destabilizing, but it is also what makes the richness of the meeting, the pooling. And this is what evaporates with network communication.
This informational jar prevents us from building ourselves as people. Does it prevent us from making choices?
P.-A. C.: Today, our capacity for free will is neutralised by the creation of informational cocoons. Our data and our bodies speak for us: they send signals through our presence, they are recognised at a distance by biometric facial recognition systems, etc. We are thus infantilised, in the literal sense of the word, and sent back to our families. We are thus in fact infantilized, in the proper sense of the term, returned to the condition of an infant: our capacity to speak, to assert ourselves as a person, is withdrawn from us, since the systems are capable of speaking in our place, in our knowledge.
The other limitation of our free will is linked to the positivist or reductionist attitude, i.e. taking the data for the real. Data are always incomplete; they are constructions, 'obtained' as Bruno Latour puts it. They give us immediate access to things, which is comfortable, but it is a partial access. If our freedom consists, following an approach rather close to Spinoza, in being able to evaluate the causes that make us act and that determine us, we must work at deciphering our machine systems and data flows. This learning process is undoubtedly the very condition of our freedom today.
This limitation of free will is problematic at the individual level. And at the collective level?
P.-A. C .: Stuck on our screens, locked in our subjective spheres, caught up in the continuous flow of information or notifications, we find ourselves ill-equipped to think in the long term. This is what Paul Virilio calls “emotional communism”: the fact of being constantly assailed by flows of information prevents our consciousness from opening up to futures and new imaginaries. This permanent presentism closes the future, the possibilities: we can clearly see it today with the state of health emergency which weakens the construction of desirable horizons. To get out of it, we must work collectively to get out of the hyper-individualisation produced by our hyperconnected societies. We must restore our awareness of the common and our vision from afar.
Citizenship today cannot be limited to the freedom of expression of people.
How do we do this?
P.-A. C.: Digital technology is a world, an environment in its own right, and not a tool. So, we have to start by describing it in order to understand it as well as possible: understanding how the data networks are constituted, how they are used, etc. Working with engineers and designers is very important for this. Working with engineers and designers is very important for this. It is striking, for example, that talking about biometrics does not provoke any reaction from the majority of students. On the other hand, a photo of an anthropometric measurement that calculates the dimensions and shape of a person's face, creating an impression of reification, generates something like unease. It is material, visible, concrete, and it awakens a certain level of critical consciousness.
It is for this reason in particular that I am interested in everything that makes it possible to render sensitive what we cannot see with the naked eye, in particular data-visualition devices, in the context of a collaboration with a graphic and digital designer from the ESAD in Reims, Olaf Avenati. As part of a joint teaching programme at IMT-BS, Télécom SudParis and the ESAD in Reims, a few years ago, for example, some students designed a tool to visualise in real time which companies were exploiting our data at a given moment. Giving back this material and visual thickness to digital traces is essential for exercising a critical and therefore lucid vision of them. It also allows us to desecrate these machines, which ultimately only produce and process information, behind the often-mythical narratives that underlie them.
The intelligibility of digital technologies is necessary. But is it sufficient to critically examine them?
P.-A. C.: It is never the visualisation as such that is important. As with a text, it is the work of reception by the reader that counts. There is never a work without the reader; without the reader, all information, all texts remain incomplete. As Sartre says in Qu'est-ce que la littérature? “The text always awaits its reader.” Hence the importance of media education and media criticism, as promoted by the Internet anthropologist Eric Guichard and the American philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg. Media literacy implies that we become actors, interpreters, and that we are no longer content to be mere spectators or consumers.
This work of intersubjectivity between author, reader and texts is not new. Literary criticism has long since developed tools for analysing and criticising texts. This is reflected today in the training courses that we follow from secondary school onwards by the analysis of texts. But this work is not yet sufficiently transposed to digital media. In the screen society, we do not learn to analyse flows, texts and images. Basically, there is very little discernment.
This is why I am convinced that we need to draw on literary and textual culture to inscribe the art of commentary in the society of screens. This applies to texts, but also to images, which must be interpreted and deciphered. Those of social networks but also those of stories that show us the digital world, such as the film Her or the series Black Mirror. Today, citizenship cannot be limited to the freedom of expression of individuals. It must include not only the ability to speak on one's own behalf but also to make the images and information flows that we receive speak for us.
How can we exercise this art of interpretation in our hyperconnected societies?
P.-A. C.: Exercising this critical and reflective judgement on what surrounds us requires a certain experience of solitude, in the sense that Hannah Arendt gives it. It is not an isolation that is suffered but a solitude that is chosen and therefore creative. Silence and solitude are taboo subjects today. But one cannot dare to use one's understanding without a form of disconnection and silence. We must learn to take on these moments and no longer fear the vertigo of the void.
Does the fact that there are several of us facilitate this work of discernment?
P.-A. C.: The meeting and collective sharing of a heterogeneous set of points of view - those of engineers, artists, computer scientists, designers, etc. - makes it possible to create intelligence with regard to the work. - The meeting and sharing of a collective heterogeneity of points of view - those of engineers, artists, computer scientists, designers, etc. - allow us to create intelligence with regard to the complexity of our digital environments.
In particular, artists are important because they create diversions that generate sensitive experiences. The narrative and the staging they propose challenge our consciousness. Art awakens without prescribing, which is all the more crucial in a society of spectacle and consumerism. Working with artists also means making young engineers understand that we can play with technologies and not be in a simply instrumental relationship with them. We must see them as possible playgrounds and creative areas; environments in their own right.
Pierre-Antoine Chardel holds a doctorate in philosophy and social sciences from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and a PhD from Laval University (Canada). He is a professor of social sciences and ethics at the Institut Mines-Télécom Business School (IMT-BS) and teaches at the Télécom SudParis engineering school (a member of the Institut Polytechnique de Paris). He is also a member of the Institut Interdisicplinaire d'Anthropologie du Contemporain (UMR 8177, CNRS / EHESS). His latest book is L'empire du signal. De l'écrit aux écrans (CNRS Editions, 2020).