How to survive “disruption” – interview with Bernard Stiegler (translation)

In a recent interview with the French-language Swiss newspaper (or at least the web version) Le Temps, Bernard Stiegler addresses some of the key issues underlying his most recent book (not yet in translation) concerning disruption. Addressing in one sweep the ideological uses of the term by those involved in technological entrepreneurialism (especially in the US) and the wider sense in which (as he has previously argued) Stiegler sees a form of widespread dispossession of knowledge, of life skills and indeed of livelihood across Europe through the rapid political, social and technological changes to work and everyday life – Stiegler continues to argue for his favoured political response: an economy of contribution.

Of interest here, perhaps, is the brief discussion of his (and, I think, Ars Industrialis) collaboration in the creation of a Chair of Innovation [one of a number of proposed ‘research chairs’] to be based in Plaine Commune an urban unitary authority, or greater Paris borough (established through the creation of Metropolitan Greater Paris [Métropole du Grand Paris] as one of the nine Établissements publics territoriaux or boroughs/unitary authorities) on the Northern fringe of Paris that is designated as le Territoire de la Culture et de la création, or ‘the borough for creativity and culture. As I understand it Stiegler proposes Plaine Commune as ‘territoire contributif‘ – a sort of region of contribution [a territory or zone delineated as an area in which the economy of contribution might take precedence, along the same lines as ‘free trade zones‘ perhaps, but with a very different ethics/politics]. The principle role of the ‘chair’ is to oversee the pilot of a kind of basic or citizens’ income (broadly akin to a universal basic income) that Stiegler suggest will be implemented through a formal agreement of ‘contribution’ – whereby the income is granted on the premise that the young people given it will use it to subside their own personal development, in turn making them greater contributors to society.

As always, I have done my best to clarify and offer original French terms where I think it helps but done so in square brackets. I welcome comments and suggestions about this translation – please understand it to be a ‘rough’ version, I am nowhere near fluent enough for this to be considered particularly authoritative!

[See the original in French here].

How to survive “disruption”

The vacuity of the “data economy” or the revitalisation of our societies in a contributory mode? For Bernard Stiegler it’s time to choose …

Bernard Stiegler does not define disruption within the five hundred pages that begin with “Inshallah” and end with “we must dream”. The term, borrowed from nuclear physics, and in particular, experiments in closed rooms suggestively called “tokamaks” denotes a “sudden onset of instability”. In the jargon of our digital age the word now means the ability of an innovation to destabilize entire sectors of the economy and society. It is also worth noting that in the (not unrelated) terminology of the American Medical Association, a “disruptive physician” is a practitioner whose deplorable behavior undermines the health of those around him. So, we’re all clear then.

Bernard Stiegler does not define disruption because that is not his objective. His new book is placed in the disruption: the subject is us, who are totally enveloped within it – all of us, with our “processes of individuation” devastated by the conversion of our interior being into data that is delivered for automatic calculation. All of us, with our “protentions” (that is to say “the desire and expectation of the future”) short-circuited by algorithms. All of us, who face the “hegemonic becoming of disinhibition” [désinhibition devenue hégémonique] exemplified by the repulsive figure of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. We are all looking for tools to perform a split, the stakes of which are everything: on one side the void, on the other, if all goes well, the “reconstruction of a true society” [reconstitution d’une véritable société]. This is the conclusion of the French philosopher, theorist and practitioner of innovation, pioneer of digital and socio-technical thinking – and also, in previous lives, owner of a jazz club and former prison inmate, as he as highlighted himself – a combination of analysis with lived experience, which is, in this way, faithful to the foundations of phenomenology.

“How to not go mad?” Asks the subtitle of his book, and how did we arrive at such a question becoming inescapable? Via a long and winding path for society, answers Stiegler, that passes through “the inversion of the Enlightenment project” and leads to the “ultra-liberal capitalism” of the present, born from conservative revolutions that work towards the “pure and simple liquidation of public power”. Also, via a long technological path that has remained unthought since Plato, because philosophy essentially refuses to think technics. To represent the point where digital disruption converges with the climate crisis, Stiegler offers the testimony of a fifteen year old boy called Florian: “We no longer dream of having a family, of having children, a profession, ideals, because we are convinced that we are the last generation”. What is to be done? Surrender to madness? Allow suicidal thoughts to creep into the crevices of our minds like ivy? Let’s see…

Le Temps: Is the situation you describe the product of technology itself, or rather of the socio-political context?

Bernard Stiegler: When computing technologies can go four million times faster than us there are associated structural effects. However, we can use these tools in alternative ways to servicing the data economy. In any case, the web was not, initially, designed for capturing data: it was a space for publication, whose success was related to the opportunity to participate in public life through publication. In the Renaissance, printing opened out a public space that we call the Republic of Letters. The web potentially opens a new space that one can call the Digital Republic. The is what happened at first but quickly, and especially in the ten years since the introduction of social networks, the internet has become a system for capturing behaviour, for the development of what the Belgian lawyer Antoinette Rouvroy calls algorithmic governmentality, by which she means the control of individuals by algorithms.

– Is it still possible to split away from this?

– It is not only possible it is absolutely essential. The computational system as it functions today produces a standardisation, a homogenisation of existential spaces, which leads to a destruction of society. Increasingly, people are seen as the mediated reports of algorithms, and these are substituted for social systems. This results in a loss of a sense of existence that causes frustration, violence and madness, which is to say: despair and desensitisation [denoétisation]: the destruction of cognitive capacities. At an economic level, with the development of automation we see the destruction of more than half of the jobs in Europe and the United States. If we do not want to also thereby destroy half of the purchasing power, and thus consumption and economic activity, we must redistribute income outside of salaried employment, which exists less and less.

– We understand you have a plan…

– It shall be necessary to redistribute the gains made through automation through what we can call a contributory income, remunerating people who augment their capacities to act, in the sense understood by the Indian economist Amartya Sen. At the moment I am developing a project in the Seine-Saint-Denis district, which has more than 430,000 inhabitants, working with their unitary authority [l’établissement public territorial] Plaine Commune. Within the authority, we are creating a Chair of Contributive Research, in partnership with universities and businesses and with the support of three ministers. Primarily, this relates to the question of distributing a contributory income amongst several hundred young people drawn at random, whom we will support through a formal agreement [with them] based upon their acquisition of knowledge. The latter need not be purely academic, we are also speaking here of life skills [savior-vivre] and practical know-how [savoir-faire] in areas that could be [for example] sport or cooking.

In a famous study, Amartya Sen wondered why adult male mortality was higher in the New York neighbourhood of Harlem than in Bangladesh. In answering the problem he put forward an explanation based on [the idea of] collective knowledge that, he said, gave the Bangladeshis an ability to withstand incomparably greater adversity. In the Western world, people are thoroughly proletarianised: they no longer have [such] knowledge [savoirs], they only have the skills to operate a supermarket checkout, accounting software or financial data tools. They are therefore no longer capable of innovating [produire du changement], they only perpetuate the standardised nature of the system. A contributory income, on the contrary, remunerates people who acquire and enhance their capacities to enrich the social. We are also in favour of an unconditional income: both of these devices [dispostifs] are complimentary.

– So, in this way, there can be a future “in the disruption”…

– It is never too late for effective action [pour bien faire]. It is absolutely essential to develop an economy of contribution, using the algorithms that are already exploiting the data economy, that does not reject disruption, because that serves no purpose, because the reality of disruption is something nobody can prevent. This demands a new form of public power and a new European politics that develops an alternative model for these technologies. We must urgently reconstruct an ecology of dreams [une écologie du rêve], of thought [pensée], and social relations, and it must be created through experimentation, rather than solely through theorisation. Today we are in processes of denial, people do not want to hear talk of the extreme gravity of the situation. Yet as soon as there are real prospects [of change], they will [finally] be able to discuss it.

Bernard Stiegler, «Dans la disruption. Comment ne pas devenir fou?» (Editions Les Liens qui libèrent, 480 p.)

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