Bernard Stiegler, “the Net blues”

Bernard Stiegler has recorded a set of two pieces concerning the ‘digital revolution’ for Le Monde: for their Laws of the Networks [Lois des réseaux] blog, convened by the journalist Dominique Lacroix.

In the first of the two pieces, Stiegler articulates the ‘pharmacological’ nature of the internet, the ways in which our use of the digital both opens up new ways of living and, at the same time, constitutes great risks to our collective and, importantly, mental individuation. In particular, Stiegler focuses on understandings of the public and the private, in the wake of the revelations made possible by Edward Snowden’s ‘leaks’, and the ways in which the digital unsettles and unbalances what we can understand to be private or ‘secret’.

I have translated this first instalment, below. As usual clarifications or questions over the translation of a particular word are in square brackets and all emphasis is in the original text. The notes at the end are also from the original piece.

The Net blues [le blues du Net]

The philosopher Bernard Stiegler defines the digital revolution through the idea of publication and its social significance. The internet and the web bring incredible and unprecedented potential. However this process has become a target for the big American corporations which represent a risk for our societies. Bernard Stiegler brings together the Greek Myths and the work of historian of Greek myths Jean-Pierre Bernant, to clarify the issues of the Snowden affair.

Net blues

The digital revolution truly began a little over twenty years ago, when the United States enabled the internet to be accessible through the web. They appropriated a vision, formed by the European Tim Berners-Lee, and made it an apparatus of neo-colonialism. It was a deliberate strategy for at least five years and which has significantly transformed the face of the world. We have not fully understood, by the way, and I’m not certain we will ever truly comprehend, this extremely complex (always) ongoing process that has a global spread.

The digital is above all a process of generalised formalisation. This process, which resides in the protocols that enable interoperability, makes a range of diverse and varied techniques. This is a process of unification through binary code of norms and procedures that today allow the formalisation of almost everything: traveling in my car with a GPS system, I am connected through a digitised triangulation process that formalises my relationship with the maps through which I navigate and that transform my relationship with territory. My relationships with space, mobility and my vehicle are totally transformed. My inter-individual, social, familial, scholarly, national, commercial and scientific relationships are all literally unsettled by the technologies of social engineering. It is at once money and many other things – in particular all scientific practices and the diverse forms of pulbic life.

This has become what I have called – taking an expression of Sylvain Auroux – the process of “grammatisation”. Drawing on recent work, I ask if this process – as André Leroi-Gourhan has already suggested – triggered the Upper Paleolithic, then suddenly intensified in the event of the neolithic, resulted in ideogrammatic writing. This has been rendered more complex, and enriched, via the automata of Vaucanson; then through the automation of factories, and thus the operation of machinery: and finally to the present situation, which is digital.

Canard de Vaucanson
Le canard digérateur, one of the most sophisticated automatons by Jacques Vaucanson, French engineer (1709-1782). source Wikipedia

The word “grammatisation” coming from τα γράμματα (ta grammata, Ed.), which can be called “the letters” in greek. This makes possible the ‘discretisation” of the flow of the temporal continuum, in the form of words, and this discretisation is effectuated through a spatialisation that is also a graphical reproduction, in other words a visualisation.

Today, the digital permits the discretisation not only of the movements of the mouth and tongue, which provide words, but rather all movements, both human and non-human – for example the movement of beef carcases that cross the Atlantic on cargo ships from Argentina to feed Europeans, which carry RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags, and which create what today we call traceability. Other examples include: how we follow the movements of animals and insects to attempt to understand the transformative processes of life, of the earth, and of other ecosystems extraordinarily perturbed by human and industrial activity, which we call the “anthropization” of the world. Yet the digital equally facilitates user profiling–and thus from this facilitates a control of behaviour through social mimesis–to track all human actions and gestures and to apply mathematical correlations with feedback loops to institute what Antoinette Rouvray and Thomas Berns [1] describe as “algorithmic governmentality”, which represents an automated forecasting of both private and public life. Or, again, the discretisation of the movements in the brain, such as brain imaging and the use of such descritisation processes to aid neuromarketing, based in an analysis of the brain that tends to directly solicit automated drives that short-circuit social development [apprentissages].

All of this opens, at the same time, tremendous new and extremely promising opportunities in social relations, in forms of knowledge, in cooperation in all forms, in communities of peer contributors, in the economy of contribution, in new tools for research, in education and creativity and finally in a new age of the life of the spirit. This speaks to a process underwritten with huge contrast and contradictions. I believe that there is a lot less time left than human society, and in particular European society, realises. Unfortunately, in Europe, this realisation was exceedingly late.

The case of Snowden, considered as a whistleblower in Europe and a traiter in the US, has revealed the practices of NSA (National Security Agency) with the collusion of Facebook, Google and other American organisations, informing the US intelligence agencies of all of our activities, through a generalised traceability. Faced with these developments, but also with the growing feeling that it is is less and less tolerable that there is a hegemony of commercial objectives that have no political or social regulation and which are almost exclusively conducted in California, by hackers, the militant developers of the web, the internet and computing and digital technologies in all sectors–which I have been personally using for over 30 years- a large number of proselytisers of the “digital revolution” have been hit by what I have called, during a public talk for Ars Industrialis at the Théatre du Rond Pont: the “Net blues” [2].

These activities and these communities suddenly  [tout à coup] discovered that the internet has extremely toxic aspects. For example, because we have seen what Snowdon revealed we have discovered the very possibility of secrecy seems to have disappeared with the digitisation of everyday life. This dissolution of secrecy is very serious. On a psychical level, it is perhaps the destruction of the possibility of a psyche endowed with intimacy and of singular individuation, if it is the case that the unconscious is what remains hidden and secret to oneself. And at the level of diplomacy, the publication of the diplomatic data and cables by Wikileaks – through a channeling [pompage] of data that made the internet possible – which has been presented as a positive thing, is also literally the destruction of the conditions for classic diplomacy, which is to say [de ce qui sert parfois à éviter la guerre]. For me, the publication of the diplomatic cables without doubt includes a positive dimension, but it is absolutely necessary not to elide that it is also a dangerous shift.

That secrets are necessary for international life is obvious. However, for example, is banking secrecy necessary? This is another topic for which we do not have time to discuss, but many believe (including myself) that the automated transfer of information to prevent bank secrecy should be mandatory.

Be that as it may, the secrecy of intimate life is essential and forms the possibility of attaining a dignity of existence–a dignity defined for humanity by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. The traceablity of personal data creates a kind of digital nudity which is an indignity for the human [l’homme]. Initimacy is the possibility and the necessity of having a secret life that I compose for myself. This is the primary lesson from Freud. I do not truly know for myself what is extremely intimate to me because that is what we call the unconscious. In the guise of self-expression, the whole of human history is in some way a “keeping of secrets” without making them public and without ever totally having access to them ourselves.

Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs
Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myths and thinking with the Greeks

From the advent of the politeia this becomes a fundamental aspect of social organsiation. The Greeks played an extremely important role in the precise, delineated and institutionalised differentation between the public and the private, for we cannot have a public sphere without a private sphere. To understand this, one must read the text that Jean-Pierre Vernant dedicated to the relation between the couple Hermes and Hestia, Hestia is the figure of the home, privacy, secrecy and the care given to the fire that always comprises a sacred and divine dimension. Hermes is the figure of movement, communication and public space. Vernant shows that there is not one without the other: if we destroy what is secret, we also destroy public space, and vice versa.

As for us, the men and women of the 21st century, we are experiencing a publishing revolution: the digital space constitutes, above all, a process of publishing. We publish ourselves, voluntarily or not. We do it unintentionally when we are tracked by cookies: everything that we do is parsed, storable and analysable through so-called big data, which are new ways of implementing applied mathematics through algorithms which can capture and process the hundreds and billions of [units of] data, which, through feedback loops, performatively change the dynamics of the behaviour of those whose data are analysed in real-time, and which constantly formulate adjustments to trajectories which are in reality a kind of autopilot for behaviour.

Be that as it may, through these publishing systems, we are all capable of publishing and so distributing our ideas, our propositions, our analyses, our points of view, our critiques, and so on – and through this, we become able to take part in a new form of public life, for example by creating [web] sites, like that of Ars Industrialis, and thereby constituting the new possiblities, which Gilbert Simondon called pyschic and collective individuation. I use the word “individuation” to explicate the “pharmacological” character of the internet: the internet is double-edged, it offers new and absolutely extraordinary opportunities for individation but also, at the same time, it threatens the fundamentals of individuation.

The internet is a “φάρμακον” (pharmakon Ed.), in the sense that Plato described writing, and we are discovering this double-edged nature [cette double face]. The actual system of the web is dangerous for secrets, for psychic individuation, for collective individuation, because we cannot and we should not submit to forms of calculability. Such a capitulation [soumission] can only engender a “voluntary servitude” which could rapidly become involuntary and inescapable [insurmontable]. In contrast, the digital allows the intensification of the incalculable in the same way that writing in Ancient Greece had huge effects on individuation through an enriched social diversity – especially by making citizenship possible, which formed the birth of a new process of psychic and collective individuation.
The promulgation of writing has certainly engendered a loss of idiomatic differences, that is to say, local individuations. All kinds of idioms began to disappear. At the same time, it was a growth in individuation through citizenship, tragedy, philosophy, etc. – All on the basis of public law [rights? droit public].

The question for us is whether the switch to digital is creating a phenomenon of this kind or, conversely, a process of widespread “disindividuation.”

Bureau de Bernard Stiegler, Épineuil-le-Fleuriel, 28 juillet 2013, cliché DL
Bernard Stiegler’s office, Épineuil-le-Fleuriel, 28 juillet 2013, taken by Dom Lecroix.


1. Cf. Réseaux, février 2013, La Découverte.
2. Cf.
3. I speak here of performativity in the sense of John Austin, for whom a performative utterance is a self-declaration such as that which I say, by the fact that I am saying it, creates a situation, and this “fact” is something in the situation that is prior to the creation of the situation. Cf. John Austin, Quand dire, c’est faire, éditions Seuil.

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