Bernard Stiegler – Digital shadows and (en)light(enment)

The translation below is the second half of the “Net Blues” interview with Bernard Stiegler conducted by the Le Monde blog “Lois des réseaux” [Laws of the networks].

In this second-half of the interview Stiegler discusses how the web should evolve developing the trope of ‘enlightenment’ (which he has significantly discussed in Taking care of youth and the generations), drawing out the play on words between light and shadow and ‘the Enlightenment’. Highlighting the web as the latest stage in publishing technologies (which have historically been central to political movements), Stiegler argues a new industrial politics must be developed, by Europe, as the ‘curative’ counter to the ‘toxic’ trend towards automation and homogeneity brought about by computation. This is the ‘pharmacological’ character of the internet Stiegler discusses in the ‘Net Blues‘. The new industrial politics Stiegler argues for has universities and the production of knowledge at its heart.

As usual clarifications or questions over the translation of a particular word are in square brackets and all emphasis is in the original text.

Digital shadows and (en)light(enment)

What do you think needs to be happen for the web to evolve?

Bernard Stiegler: I think that the web today is an entropic system. It first appeared, for most of us, not least for myself, as a negentropic opportunity, that is, as a new capacity for diversification, especially because it has allowed people to begin to differentiate between different kinds and uses of media [parce qu’il a permis de démassifier les médias]. Today, major newspapers, such as Le Monde and many others, allow all kinds of actors to convene around the newspaper, collecting together a very diverse range of views. This is an opportunity and it has given the sense of a kind of renaissance, following the development of an extreme consumerism within the mass media and the culture industries becoming an undifferentiated mass [qui avait été une sorte de laminoir] – especially in the last twenty years. Media such as television deteriorated terribly. All of which was related to an economic and industrial model that is now in decline.

Nevertheless, the web initially appeared as an opportunity for negentropy, that is to say of diversification. However, what we’ve discovered in recent years, in particular since we began to speak of the ‘Big Four‘, is the extraordinary hegemony of global giants who have gained an unprecedented prescriptive power over behaviour.

Only the United States takes full advantage of this economy of data. The data economy, which is destroying European national taxation and increasingly deprives public authorities of their capabilities to act, is based on a generalized calculability which is at odds with the negentropic promise of the web. This calculability tends towards the reintroduction of the law of the audience ratings. The page ranking performed by Google’s algorithm is a very specific, surgical form of audience rating, which is very efficient and very refined, but like television audience rating leads to the transformation of singularities into peculiarities, i.e. computable items, because it homogenises and de-singularises. Unlike the individual, the singular is incalculable. In this case, we have a new entropy process that we feel threatens languages. This is how I interpret Frederic Kaplan’s analysis of what he calls “linguistic capitalism.”

However, this predicament is not legislated, and it could be entirely different: the web in the service of an intensification of “individuation”, in other words singularities, is the future—and it is the future of Europe. Given the present circumstances, the web would totally horizontalise and level out information, because it requires processes of computation based on the removal of any lack of transparency.

As I said earlier, the web and the internet are publishing techonologies. Publishing technologies are the origin of what Plato calls πολιτεία (Politeia, Ed.) that we translate as res publica in Latin. Why do we translate it as res publica? Because Politeia constitutes a “public good”, as we discussed earlier. And the establishment of public goods requires publication technologies, which for the Greeks was writing. Marcel Detienne has shown that the Athenian city is like a vast typewriter that has wrote into the marbel of the walls of the city. After each decision of the Βουλή (boulè [parliament], Ed.) the publishers of the law wield the hammer and chisel to carve the decision in stone. This process of publication created the public right of citizens to criticise the law. One enters the politeia, citizenship, and [so] paves the way to democracy. Today, with digital computation, a whole new publication system is in place.

However, we always claim that the state of political rights, and the accompanying reason, is what the Greeks called λόγος (logos, Ed.). However, this assumes that such processes of publication enables disagreement, the publication of contradictory arguments, which we call public debate, and which is a fundamental rule of all rational knowledge. The promise of the web was to revive public, political, scientific or aesthetic debate. But this promise has not been kept. From the moment Google, Amazon and such companies had to make a profit from all of this, they became totally interested in equalising and levelling out data in order to exploit it with algorithms, crushing disagreement rather than enabling traceability and widespread intelligibility. I do not think this situation can last. The basis of knowledge, in all its forms — I’m not just talking about theoretical knowledge, its also true of ‘know how’ [savoir-faire] and life skills [savoir-vivre] – is grounded in a fundamental diversification, which when [knowledge] ceases, leaves behind dead knowledge – like dead languages and towns transformed into museums [villes muséifiées]. If the sciences and knowledge are founded on publication processes, the development of the digital is a radical transformation of knowledge, and in particular of academic knowledge. The power of Europe and the West is founded on power over knowledge. The emperor Frederic Barberousse, who, in opposition to the Pope, granted freedom to the University of Bologna in the 13th Century, initiated a process followed by Oxford, the Sorbonne and Cambridge. It is not the Conquistadors and the caravels that are the primary origin of the centuries-long global domination of the West: it is the reliance upon universities. This clearly evolves in new directions with the appearance of new devices for printing – and the cognitive as well as spiritual revolution brought about by Luther is clearly a consequence of such publishing technologies, by which Luther makes reading the scriptures for oneself the heart of his struggle. Along with the Counter Reformation, this leads to the foundation of the Jesuit Schools and the Jesuits evangelising around the world through their missions, which constitutes a fundamental aspect of the Enlightenment project, and this, with Condorcet[1] and the French Revolution, leads to Jules Ferry[2] via Guizot[3].

Obviously, the web, and the digital more generally, totally reconfigures these maps from top to bottom – not only the maps for teaching but the conditions of scientific research and the life of the mind in all its forms. Europe should not fear this, even less so since it is the origin of the concepts of the web and HTML, in which, in France, CNET [The National Centre for Telecommunication Studies] (which has been destroyed by irresponsible policies) played an important role in the design of the ATM and GSM networks. Europe has played an extremely important role in the configuration of all technical systems, but has failed to make this common knowledge [? elle n’a pas su le socialiser] because European political and economic actors are often blind to such issues. Thus, when researchers and scientists are daring and inventive they have found themselves confined to an imitation of the ‘American model’, which is a disaster for a Europe that is totally devoid of an industrial strategy, and condemned to a ‘downgrading’, at the height of the challenges of our times.

What we call the Enlightenment emerged in Europe, and it was produced by the republic of letters resulting from the printing press. We are no longer in the era of pure Enlightenment: we have entered an era of Shadow and Enlightenment [the word “Lumières” here is used as a play on words between light and enlightenment]. It is an era of a pharmacological consciousness of what pushes the speed of technology, the speed of light, also causes the shadows of the ‘toxicity’ of the digital, which necessarily accompany their own ‘cure’ [sa «curativité»]. A new industrial politics should be supported by Europe and must be based on a curative politics and economics of the digital, deliberatively and rationally battling against its toxicity. After Edward Snowden’s revelations [discussed in more detail in ‘the Net Blues‘] every citizen is aware of this huge problem that puts the future gravely at risk [un immense problème qui hypothèque très gravement l’avenir].

Europe should unite around a project for a new Enlightenment that is at once scientific, philosophical, industrial, and economic; which fully seizes the immense challenges brought by computation [la numérique]. Such a politics should be based upon an unprecedented use of universities and research organisations. The very nature of knowledge is destabilised by the digital. For example, to work in the nanosciences today means working with digital artifacts to produce nanoscale phenomena, that is to say, at the quantum level. These are not actually digital phenomena, i.e. objects of intuition, but what Kant called the “noumena”, that is to say the objects of understanding and reason. However, these are objects that are, at the same time, completely constituted in nanophysics, and are the objects of scientific experiments, by being simulated and mathematically modelled using computers. Genetic biology is made possible today by biostations, that is: by informational calculations made on very large amounts of data. The digital alters the practices of mathematicians, but Frederic Kaplan has shown it also modifies the development of languages. [Furthermore] geography has become fundamentally linked to geographical information systems, as the GPS standard has been socialised within our everyday lives. The structures of digitisation are transforming all knowledge, including know-how [les savoir faires] and life skills [les savoir vivre].

Faced with such a universal upheaval it is essential to reconfigure all academic research and to organise new links between universities and school curriculums [les pratiques scolaires] so that the digital enters schools on a rational basis, not through the stories told [storytelling] by economic actors advocating a legitimation of their own models [of the digital]. This model [of working] should be analysed, critiqued and continuously improved, for that is [the practice of] reason. Taking such a critique to the global level, Europe could reconstruct a digital industry which is currently tragically lacking. It is not only children but also parents, and elected officials, that need to be acculturated [to such changes] through schools, so that European society can be deeply reconfigured, and take with it a new model of the web.


1. In the 18th century, the Marquis de Condorcet developed a voting tally system to select the candidate who would beat each of the other candidates in a run-off election.

2. Jules Ferry was a 19th century republican who promoted laicism and French colonial expansion.

3. François Guizot was a prominent 19th century statesman who significantly promoted education.

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