With digital, we write differently, we read differently … However, the majority of the population does not have the digital culture necessary to master this new writing system. Only a few experts and the major digital players know and control these new techniques, and therefore this new way of thinking. What place, and what liberties, for citizens in this new form of domination?
We are talking a lot about the advent of a digital society … Without ever defining this term. Basically, what is digital change in our society?
Eric Guichard: Basically, digital is writing, and by extension a new way of thinking, since writing is our first intellectual technique. With digital, the system of signs of writing evolves: the alphabet of 26 letters is replaced by a binary coding. The tools too: they are computers, software … and no longer feathers, paper or typewriters as before. Some futuristic engineers say that writing will soon give way to vocal. But behind voice recognition, there will always be code, software … still writing!
If digital is the foundation of a new writing system, is it accessible to all? Who is writing ? Who reads ?
EG: There have always been digital exclusions. Ten years ago, we were talking about a “digital divide” to distinguish those who had an internet connection from those who did not have one. Today, we are referring more to those who do not have the skills to use digital tools and services. In my opinion, the challenge of digital inclusion is to master the culture of digital writing. Do not check the box of such equipment or use. However, to be able to take advantage of the writing, the time of the printed matter like digital, it is not given to everybody. That’s why I’m talking more about digital illiteracy, or lack of digital literacy.
Take the example of downloadable open mapping data on opendata.gouv.fr. Such large files, very little software can read them. Word can not do it, Excel either … You need specialized software that only 1% of the population knows how to handle! In this sense, digital literacy is a capital in the Bourdieu sense. We could classify the population into three classes:
– Engineers, developers, hackers, computer scientists … who work in the digital world or who are curious or demanding amateurs. They and they both know how to write and read with digital technology;
– Some researchers and scientists, who have gradually developed digital literacy and numerical skills;
– The rest of the population (more than 95% of people) who can neither read nor write and does not have digital capital.
95% of people can not read or write: they do not have digital capital.
Finally, those who master the digital are those who shape it … Should we see a deliberate desire to keep users in “read only” mode?
EG: Digital as a writing system is shaped and locked by some big multinationals. They are the ones who generate and maintain this widespread digital illiteracy. For example, as soon as one invents a writing standard, Microsoft adds a complex coding element to prevent others from reading it. They also regularly change file format.
Whenever the writing changes, it is also the tools that allow to read it that change and our collective habits with. It reminds me of a dictionary that was published in Germany. The characters were so small that the volumes were provided with a magnifying glass to read them. Today, the loupes are mostly software edited by some multinationals. And these software, essential for reading digital writing, they rent them now. If we stop this rental, we lose access to our images and our texts. Fortunately, there are other free tools for reading, writing, communicating. But they are little known.
Finally, even digital uses are monopolized by a handful of multinationals. Using Google as search engine, Gmail as email, Facebook as a social network, it becomes a real social norm. It becomes very difficult to resist by choosing alternatives. The major digital players are firmly established in all our digital uses of everyday life.
Digital Capital also identifies recurring and standardized digital uses. For example, Youtube appears everywhere as an engine to do everything: research, learning, entertainment …
Signs and code, tools, uses … All dimensions of the digital writing system seem monopolized by some multinationals. How to explain it?
EG: The digital sector is today very industrialized, very capitalist. It replicates (and sometimes reinforces) all the traditional features of this mode of economic organization: maximization of profits, monopolistic tendency, unbridled search for customers, atomized and unskilled labor. In this system, companies must keep a firm grip on operating systems, file formats, communication modes … to remain the owners of digital writing and eliminate all forms of competition.
You say that some multinationals monopolize and accumulate digital capital. Does Marx say that capitalism is experimenting with a new form of digital domination?
EG: Today’s digital is not the same as it was in the beginning. Ten years ago, we could still take ownership, develop know-how. And the big digital companies were less interested in formatting our practices and selling us. But today, we undergo violently this digital transformation … In this sense, it constitutes a new form of domination.
On the one hand, we feel that this digital transformation is forced upon us, without it responding to our needs or desires. For example, chatbots. When I need help on a site, I want to talk to a human … not a supposed artificial intelligence that harasses me on the screen! Especially since in 50% of the cases, she does not understand what I ask her. On the other hand, we become slaves, in spite of ourselves, of this digital transformation: by producing knowledge, by responding to captcha … Today, there are between 40 and 400 million people working in the place of artificial intelligences.
This digital industrial is fast and without delicacy, and it lamination all forms of alternative appropriation. More than a resource, it is now a violent form of exploitation.
The digital transformation goes fast and without delicacy. More than a resource, it is now a violent form of exploitation.
If the digital is imposed on a forced march and constitutes a new form of exploitation … one has the impression however that it is welcomed positively by a majority of the population. Why do not we revolt?
EG: We live in a world where digital is associated with a set of myths. Faster, simpler, more reliable … And we adhere to most of these lies. The smartphone for example. We see it as the indispensable tool, useful for any occasion …. In reality, I think that smartphones work very badly. Using other software than those that appear on the screen by default is very long; change the settings, very complicated … It works as long as we stay within the framework imposed on us … and this framework is very limited. There are a lot of little bugs that annoy people but we do not dare to say it. We are bound hand and foot by the tool and the fashion effect that accompanies it.
The multinationals fuel these myths around the digital which make turn their commercial engineering. If I sell a hammer and I conquer the market, I must tell you tomorrow that you need the pair of pincers that I make. The less people understand this, the easier it is for these multinationals.
If citizens are easy prey for these companies, why are researchers, experts and policymakers not reacting more?
EG: Most people do not see the digital industry as a new writing industry, and therefore as a new instrument of domination … because one is a historian, philosopher or sociologist, in Europe one does not do not like the technicality. It comes from our philosophical spiritualist heritage, incarnated by thinkers like Hegel, Heiddegger, Husserl … According to them, the intellectual is dissociated from the material, the technique. Thinking is a lonely matter, highly intellectual and has nothing to do with objects.
Those who think the opposite, that thought needs external instruments to build itself, have always been in the minority. Yet, it has always taken a pen, a dictionary, books, and today a computer, to articulate a thought. Leibniz said that thinking and calculating was the same: it amounts to doing a series of mechanical operations. Today, we are worried about artificial intelligence, which could think independently. But we do not evaluate how our own thinking evolves, because of the series of calculations and automatisms we have been using for 40 years. This is not audible to our elites.
Leibniz said that thinking and calculating was the same: it amounts to doing a series of mechanical operations.
If it is conceptually difficult to associate the digital to a new writing mode and then thought, what leeway does it leave the state to democratize the culture of digital writing? Is he totally helpless?
EG: State action in the field of digital literacy has three limitations: poor diagnosis, lack of resources and growing acculturation in the private sector.
A large part of public action in relation to the digital part of the report of the “digital divide”. This term refers sometimes to the lack of connection to the Internet (hence plans focused on digital infrastructures: “fiber” plans, 4G, 5G …) sometimes lack of digital skills (hence plans for places of training in the use of digital tools and services: cyberbases, digital public spaces …). Basically, the digital divide is a question of writing. But that, nobody says it. If the state did this, knowing that it takes about 50 years to spread and assimilate a mode of writing, it would invest massively and in the long term in education. And again, 50 years is when the writing system is stable …
Basically, the digital divide is a question of writing. But that, nobody says it.
The state poses the challenges of departure … and provides answers mobilizing too few means. When it funds digital training spaces, it is often novices or people in insertion who are in charge of animating it. The state is doing well, it is social on both sides. But this is not enough because the supervisors are not trained.
Finally, the state relies more and more on private organizations to transmit digital culture. This is not surprising: we are today at the heart of the ideology of the start-up. A striking example of this is that the state outsourced the handling of the Great Debate’s responses to a private company. The public research laboratories were asked only to check, a posteriori, that their treatment was not too false …
Digital Capital also reveals the importance of the concept of “digital divide” in public policies of digital democratization. It also points to a strong demand for digital training from citizens. This request, however, does not find a meeting ground with the existing institutional offer.
If this does not come from the state, how can citizens reclaim digital writing?
EG: I see people setting up their own website rather than using private providers. I see people using alternative search engines that do not track us. I see young people using free writing systems like markdown or LaTeX.
The challenge is to make the digital writing culture desirable, starting from existing uses and setting an example. Many people will not want to change their habits right away. When Jules Ferry decided to make school compulsory in 1881, it does not work immediately for everyone. But if we convert 10% of the population, this 10% will have much more power of dissemination through their own network than through institutions.
Digital Capital also reveals the importance of building on existing digital uses to generate interest and empower people.
Today, we must dare to be radical. It’s our business, writing! It belongs to us, we do not fly it. We will not emancipate by continuing to write as Google and Facebook want us to write.
Today, we must dare to be radical. We will not emancipate by continuing to write as Google and Facebook want us to write.
Mathematics Associate, Eric Guichard is responsible for the team Networks, Knowledge & Territories of the Ecole Normale Superieure in Rue d’Ulm, where he taught computer human and social sciences. Former Program Director at the International College of Philosophy, he is currently Senior Lecturer HdR at the National School of Information Sciences and Libraries (Enssib), member of the Triangle Laboratory and IXXI (Complex Systems, Lyon ).
Ouishare has voluntarily chosen to keep the oral tone of the interview during its transcription.
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