Bernard Stiegler: “The time saved through automation must be granted to the people” [translation]

The interview with Bernard Stiegler translated below comes from the l’Humanité.fr website. This follows nicely from the other interview about ‘how to survive disruption’ I recently translated. It’s interesting for a number of reasons, but I think principally because he offers a little more detail on how one might go about creating an ‘economy of contribution’ by discussing the experiments with Plaine Commune and what he means by “contributory income” and how that differs from a ‘universal basic income”. For those interested in Stiegler’s work, beyond the philosophical texts, this is quite an enlightening read (I think).

As usual, clarifications and original French are in square brackets. In this case, all of the footnotes are by me. I hope some others find this of interest… I did.

Bernard Stiegler: “The time saved through automation must be granted to the people”

In the face of the upheavals created by digital data, the philosopher [Bernard Stiegler], developing his research in concert with the think tank Ars Industrialis and the Institute of Research and Innovation [of the Pompidou Centre], invites us to comprehensively [de fond en comble] rethink work. He advocates the establishment of an economy of contribution based on a new type of value production and social justice.

We are entering the era of big data. Does the quantitative explosion of digital data signal a new industrial revolution?

Bernard Stiegler Yes and it is already upon us. A study for the board of Roland Berger [a global strategy consultancy] suggests that three million jobs will be destroyed in the next ten years. But, other studies predict that 47% of jobs in the US, 50% in Belgium and France, will be automated in the course of the next twenty years. We are entering the third historical wave of automation. In the 19th century machine tools enabled capitalism to achieve enormous gains in productivity, while distributing the resulting profits only amongst the bourgeoisie. The second wave was created through Taylorism and the assembly line, which in part benefited the working classes because the workers consumed the goods they played a part in producing, creating mass markets. The third wave is not solely constituted by robots but also by the data we all generate, notably with our smart phones. All of these data that we deliver to platforms, such as Google, banks or shopping websites, are processed in every country and in an immediate manner by algorithms. Their exploitation allows, for example, a company like Amazon to predict what it may sell and to encourage us to buy in an extremely efficient manner, all with the minimum staff. Further, automation is allowing the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, to design very simple robots, capable of placing and retrieving stock incredibly quickly, without human interaction, controlled by software.

Does this means that in the near term a company like Amazon will be able to do without employees to pick, pack and send out packages?

Bernard Stiegler Warehouse workers will be replaced by robots. The “robolution” [1] is becoming increasingly possible for a large number of companies. The humanoids that are reaching market now are much less expensive and more advanced than the large automata already in use. Even SMEs can invest in them.

In the medium term then, such automation concerns everyone?

Bernard Stiegler Driverless lorries are already on the roads of Nevada and soon will be in Germany. Artificial intelligence will be able to replace lawyers who put their legal studies on file. All analytical jobs will be effected. Even medics. A high performance robot is able to conduct prostate surgery… In his Foundations of a Critique of Political Economy [the Grundrisse], Karl Marx formulated the hypothesis: what if everything  is automated? If nothing changes, in particular regions, 80 to 90 percent of the under 25s will soon have no other perspective. The markets will collapse, because there will be no more purchasing power, and with them will go the social security system that relies on workers’ contributions. A new society is being formed and it is not very compatible with that of today. We urgently need to rethink everything, to develop trade based on a new type of value production and social justice. I strongly believe in experimentation, which is why we have launched a project related to Plaine Commune [2] in the urban community of Seine-Saint-Denis. Beginning with a 10-year pilot programme, the aim is to create a district of learning [territoire apprenant] whose inhabitants are not only consumers of but also providers [prescripteurs] of digital services.

We imagine that this area was not chosen at random. Plaine Commune is both rich in diversity, it’s network of associations but also home to a disadvantaged population, facing mass unemployment… 

Bernard Stiegler When I started talking about this project with Patrick Braouezec, president of Plaine Commune, 38% of young people under 25 were unemployed in Seine-Saint-Denis. That figure is now 50% and if we follow the projections, the rate could reach between 80 and 90% in ten years. This endemic problem of unemployment will affect all developed countries unless they invent something new: that’s what we want to do in Plaine Commune. The idea is to develop an economy of contribution in a completely different model to Uber. The time gained through automation must be made available to people, otherwise the economy will collapse. The Indian economist Amartya Sen has shown, through a study comparing the residents of Bangladesh and Harlem [New York], that life expectancy is better and we live in a better society when the sharing of expertise strengthens social ties. He discusses a Human Development Index. Plaine Commune is a bit like Bangladesh: the people there are exercising a remarkable energy. [Various] actors, businesses and residents are aware of the urgent need to invent something radically new, which is to use the mechanisms of contribution to develop a commons in a project that promotes the development, exchange, and transmission of practical knowledge [savoir-faire], life skills [savoir-vivre] and theoretical knowledge [savoir théoretiques] among the younger generations, associations, businesses, public services of the area, and doctoral students from around the world. Researchers will have the mission to facilitate and work alongside these changes.

So this project proposes to put people at the centre of an increasingly automated society [une société de plus en plus robotisée]?

Bernard Stiegler Standardisation, the elimination of diversity, and the destruction of knowledge produce high-dose entropy, characterised by the state of “disorder” of a system. Here was must engage in a little theory. In the nineteenth century, physicists established that, in the theory of a universe in expansion since a big bang, energy irreversibly dissipates. The law of becoming is entropy [La loi du devenir est l’entropie]. Erwin Schrödinger, a great theorist of quantum mechanics (which is the theoretical basis of nanotechnology), however, showed that life is characterised by its ability to produce negative entropy, which is also called negentropy. This delays disorder, that is to say death, which is a decomposition of living matter. Social organisations have a similar function. Automation, which is a hyper-standardisation, produces entropy. Google’s algorithms, which can translate the languages of the world through English, which acts a pivot language, causes an immense linguistic entropy. The impoverishment of vocabulary and dysorthography regresses individual and collective intelligence through a submission to the law of averages. Conversely, life produces, through exceptions, mutations that are impossible to anticipate but which are the very conditions of evolution. Poets and writers have shaped languages through their exceptional use of language. Algorithms erase all exceptions: they only work by calculating probabilities based upon averages. Crude automation produces a generalised (mental as well as environmental) disorder, which ruins the economy. In the economy of tomorrow, automation can instead be placed at the service of the production of negative entropy. It must allow for the valorisation of exceptions by developing the collective empowerment of everyone to make the commons [la valorisation des exceptions en développant la capacitation collective de chacun pour en faire du commun].

The upheaval that you describe considerably changes the concept of work. Are we facing the erasure of the organisation of employment around the notion of salaried work?

Bernard Stiegler In employment [l’emploi] today, the worker [travailleur] is deprived of their expertise [savoir-faire]. They must follow a process and rely upon software – until one day, the task has become automated and the employee [l’employé] is dismissed. Work [Le travail], by contrast, is an activity during which the worker enriches the task by exercising their knowledge [savoir] through its differentiation [en le différenciant], and continually bringing something new to society. This kind of work produces negentropy, that is to say, also, value, and it cannot be automated because it consists, on the contrary, in de-automating [désautomatiser] routines. Ongoing automation must redistribute some of the productivity gains in order to fund some time for everyone to build capacities [un temps de capacitation de tout un chacun] within an economy of contribution that enables everyone to enhance their knowledge. This is why we advocate the adoption of a contributory income, which is not the same as a universal income.

Precisely, the idea has even more trouble finding its way because it overlaps very different definitions … 

Bernard Stiegler Such an income, also called “basic” [income], is a safety net. A contributory income is at the intersection of the models of temporary work in the performing arts [intermittents du spectacle] and the practices of [creating] free software. It covers various levels of compensation that depend upon the periods of employment and the level of salary. The work of tomorrow will be discontinuous [intermittent]. Periods of employment will alternate with periods of acquiring, developing and sharing knowledge. The right to the contributory income will be “rechargeable”, based upon the number of hours of employment. In case of problems, the system will be accompanied by a minimum living wage [revenu minimum d’existence] – as a social protection system accompanying the scheme. The trial we have led with Plaine Commune includes testing a contributory income to benefit those who are younger, for whom the amounts could increase with age and where the contribution allowance [allocation contributif] outside of the employed period would represent a percentage akin to the model of paying unemployment benefit to those working in the performing arts [les intermittents]. The beneficiaries would be invited to “invest in themselves” [«s’encapaciter»], that is to say, to increase their knowledge through studies as well as professional experience. They would be invited to share their knowledge [savoirs] with their neighbouring community [communauté territoriale]. All of this calls for a new collective intelligence, capable of mobilising formal and advanced theoretical knowledge, which is why, with doctoral students, the aim is to develop a contributory research involving the young and local residents. The aim is to develop an economy of contribution founded on the production of negentropy. [3]

So, periods of paid employment remain in your system – what is the difference between contributory work [travail contributif] and precarious part-time job [petit job précaire]?

Bernard Stiegler The switchboard operator job at TF1 paid in the vein of someone working in the performing arts [comme intermittents du spectacle] is only made precarious [précarisée] at the expense of Assedic [4]. Contributory work must be defined by precise criteria. However, such a question cannot be answered a priori, except through the formal principal I have already stated, which is the production of negentropy, that is to say: practical know-how [savoir-faire], life skills [savoir-vivre] and formal knowledge [savoirs formels]. The PhD theses of our doctoral students are intended to inform these issues in close collaboration with the work carried out in Villetaneuse by Benjamin Corriat’s team on the economy of the commons. We will build on the experience of the architect Patrick Bouchain, who has shown how to put urban renewal projects in the service of a political economy of collaboration – where the residents, who are directly involved in the renovation, may be paid in shares of the development [l’habitat]. There are possibilities for developing the economy of contribution through associations, cooperatives, the social economy and solidarity, public services, as well as through industry, where new production methods will create new professions, which will be intermittent.

Have you any idea of how to fund this radical transformation to systems of production?

Bernard Stiegler A share of the gains in productivity must be redistributed. Taxes raised on trillions of euros passing through purely speculative markets might actually be invested in profitable, just and sustainable projects, without forgetting the fight against tax evasion. Vocational training credits [Les crédits de la formation professionnelle] – 38 billion Euros per year – should be involved in funding the economy of contribution, as should many of the exemptions from social charges or tax that could be diverted for this purpose. They represent 80 billion Euros. There really is enough there for this to be funded.

Notes [by me]

1. “Robolution” is a literal translation of the neologism used by Stiegler, i.e. a portmanteau of robot & revolution.

2. The project with Plaine Commune is specified in outline [in French] on the France Strategie 2017-2027 website, and is supported by the Fondation de France.

3.As in previous written work and interviews, Stiegler uses the idea of the “intermittents” or “intermittents du spectacle” to signify the idea of work that is subsidised through some form of state administered allowance, such as unemployment benefit. In France people working in the performing arts are entitled to claim for social security benefits designed for people without regular employment [as per the definition provided by Larousse online.]

4. Assédic or ASSEDIC is the partial acronym of “Association pour l’emploi dans l’industrie et le commerce” (Association for Employment in Industry and Trade).

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