Addiction to new technologies is not natural

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There are ready-made reasonings that circulate like a stream of evidence in our societies. Whether they are true or false does not matter to most people, the important thing is to join the ideological background murmur without having to question its true meaning. For more than a century, this has been the case with the frequent confusion between technical progress and human progress(1), one necessarily leading the other in a ballet that many imagine to be spontaneous, natural and happy, like an embracing couple dancing the tango of a brighter tomorrow.

In this contemporary fable, young people are often taken as an example for their open-mindedness towards new technologies, especially for their infatuation towards the digital world and its most beautiful digital finery: tablets and smartphones, connected objects and artificial intelligence, robots and social networks… Living embodiment of the future, young people would be naturally inclined towards new technologies, which they would appreciate and master much more easily than adults.

YOUNG PEOPLE IN LOVE WITH NEW TECHNOLOGIES?

But this view is wrong: young people are not innately knowledgeable about new technologies. Often, their skills in this area are closely tied to the applications and software that their age group likes, but they become familiar or non-existent as soon as you take them out of the comfortable rut of their habits. Thus, more than one parent — taking their teenager for a genius of digital tools — had the surprise to suddenly rise in rank one day when their young prodigy came to ask for their help to… send an email or use a word processor! Proof by the absurd that young people are not predisposed to technical progress: like everyone else, they learn to deal with it through contact with others, and their only advantage over adults is that their behavior is more flexible and malleable because it has not yet been forged by decades of habit.

Moreover, their supposed attachment to high-tech tools is mainly motivated by the desire to have social contacts. In a way, their virtuosity in using social networks is comparable to the learning of language in songbirds (starlings, blackbirds, titmice, finches, robins…): it is by imitating more experienced fellow birds that the young learn to compose melodious songs and communicate with each other; without a tutor, no bird is able to sing properly! Moreover, mutual imitation of songs is often a sign of great emotional attachment. Thus, the ability of parrots to perfectly imitate voices (not only human) is a way to consolidate lasting bonds: by imitating each other, the female and the male mark their joint desire to form a monogamous couple for life. Similarly, in the siamang monkeys of Indonesia, the male and the female sing duets every morning, which are all the more harmonious because the partners have been attached to each other for a long time.

THE NEED FOR REAL SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS

There is something similar in the « love » of young people (and adults) for new technologies. What interests them is not so much playing with technical novelties, but rather inserting themselves socially by imitating and adopting the behaviors in vogue around them. Of course, if certain tools allow for intense communication — that is, every day, at any time, whether you’re at school or at your parents’ house — they will quickly become popular with teenage tribes. An age when you need to assert yourself, if possible by joining a group of friends with whom you can totally identify. And if social networks allow young people to take on challenges on TikTok, to post their opinions on Twitter or to follow fashionable female influencers on social networks, it is obvious that being connected becomes a vital issue not because we like it in itself, but to be like others. To not feel left out.

Let’s take as a witness a singer to whom social networks have rather succeeded: Angèle. In his song La Thune, social networks are not a place of disinterested free expression. They are the mirror in which everyone seeks to exist in the eyes of others, which is why « teople only want to be famous, and only that, that makes them move, move their asses the time of a drink, photos on Insta it is obliged, if not in the end what is the use, if it is not even to show them? « On the other hand, time spent online is far from being a source of fulfillment for everyone, and even trendy singers sometimes say, « Here’s to What’s the point? You’re so alone behind your screen. You think about what people will think. But you leave them all indifferent. « In this mirror of illusions, the ritual of connecting is as much a personal desire as a social obligation (how can you not be there when everyone is present?), even if no one is fooled by the simulacrum of social relations offered by the digital world.

The long « social winter » in which the coronavirus has plunged us (this small invisible being that puts the human being back in his place of link, modest and fragile, within the ecosystems(2)) is a proof. While confinement practices affect us all, the 15–25 year old generation is particularly affected because this is the age when sociability relies heavily on meeting new people. However, if there is one thing that is obvious, it is the total dissatisfaction of young people to confine all their daily exchanges in the digitized pixels of digital pipes. Too many things are missing: the gesture, the look, the touch, the real interaction that constitutes the physical presence of others to feel their emotions by the vibrations of their voice, the movement of their eyes, their laughter or the postures of their body. As an empathetic species, we need these ingredients generated by real, non-distance encounters to fuel the richness of our social relationships. Faced with this ancestral reality, the digital world is only an unsatisfactory substitute by itself.

WHO REALLY MASTERS DIGITAL TOOLS?

However, this ersatz human relationship is not without consequences on the world around us. At a time of global warming, the profusion of digital networks and connected objects is furiously aggravating environmental disasters — as the book La face cachée du numérique (by Fabrice Flipo, Marion Michot and Michelle Dobré) — the « Cash Investigation » program devoted to Unmentionable secrets of our cell phones, or Babette Porcelijn’s research on Our hidden footprint (everything you need to know to live lightly on Earth). But digital pollution is also mental: from online scams to revenge porn, there are countless toxic activities on the Internet. Extremely brutal, cyberstalking can destabilize even the most experienced users, and devastate weaker victims who — tested by the hell of online harassment — find only one way to disconnect: suicide(3).

Stemming such tragedies can hardly be done in a jiffy. Take bullying in schools: it takes time to become aware of the problem. It is also necessary to imagine adapted solutions whether it is at the family, school, institutional or political level. So many actors are involved: students (both perpetrators and victims), parents, teachers, school administrations, the Ministry of Education, youth welfare associations, judicial institutions, political parties… If the problem is to be tackled effectively, time is needed.

A LOT OF TIME…

But time is sorely lacking. Because as soon as a threshold is crossed in the digitization of the world, the next step is imposed in force with the introduction of 5G today, and the advent of an electronic state desired by the current Belgian government. It is true that the latter is in line with the European digital strategy, which is itself tied to the political demands of influential business lobbies such as Digital Europe (the voice of the digital industry in the European Union) or GS1 (the global manager of the barcode, and the discreet architect of theInternet of Things). Through them, the digital market empires demand not only to devote our public tax money to the construction of a huge digital spider’s web (digital infrastructures, 5G, allocation of radio frequencies…), but also to imprison in it — willingly or by force — our biological bodies and the smallest moments of our lives(4). Loves, friendships, hobbies, work, travel, private details, sexual affinities, products consumed, books read, meals eaten, Internet sites consulted, health or DNA data, political and religious convictions: in us, in us, everything interests them! Because the more and more precise the data captured in their electronic silos, the bigger their profits will be…

In other words, they intend to transform the entire planet into a high-tech interrogation room, where we will have to deliver (consciously or not) more and more personal data. In other times, in other places, this would have been called the inquisitive delirium of some dictatorship. In this case, the ideological background noise prefers to praise « entrepreneurial freedom », — often omitting to mention the active support of governments. But for what future?

Perhaps those that Jonathan Crary fears in his book Le capitalisme numérique à l’assaut du sommeil?

In any case, it is not for our individual liberties: because why put the cart of « technical progress » in high-speed mode, when our ability to adapt is linked to the slower, but courageous, rhythm of democratic debates?

Bruno Poncelet

Notes et références
  1. À L’heure où nous vivons, celle d’un holocauste planétaire exterminant massivement une multitude d’espèces, ajoutons qu’une confusion règne également entre ce que nous nommons le progrès humain (qui ne sert bien souvent qu’une minorité de privilégiés solvables) et l’intérêt général d’écosystèmes en bonne santé.
  2. À titre personnel, je déplore que Kairos n’ait pas davantage creusé cette réflexion au cours des mois écoulés. Car si toute politique étatique peut être soumise à la critique — a fortiori quand elle contraint autant nos libertés personnelles —, je trouve que le sens de la nuance s’est estompé pour mener une charge à sens unique contre le confinement et la quasi-totalité des mesures de précaution sanitaire, évinçant ainsi du débat ce que le coronavirus raconte de nos rapports aux autres vivants — qu’ils soient humains à la santé fragile ou non-humains.
  3. Dans le documentaire « Cyber-harcèlement, l’enfer du clic » produit en 2020 par RTS-Temps Présent, les reporters Nicolas Pallay et Quentin Bohlen font témoigner diverses personnes (bloggeur, femme politique, journaliste sportif, youtubeuse influente, etc.), toutes victimes d’attaques virulentes massives en ligne.
  4. Nulle théorie du complot ici. Plutôt de nombreuses accointances entre les demandes politiques des empires marchands numériques (consultables sur les sites de Digital Europe et GS1) et l’index DESI de la Commission européenne. De même, la numérisation de nos corps biologiques (nommée Internet of bodies) n’est pas une légende urbaine, mais l’un des sujets abordés au cours du Forum économique Mondial de juillet 2020. Cfr. mon analyse « L’état électronique : Comment ? Pourqoi ? », disponible sur le site du cepag.be (rubrique publications, 30 octobre 2020).
 
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